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Dark Angels and Demon Brats

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“I failed,” Jason said, his hands balled into fists. “I just couldn’t...why couldn’t I push the trigger?! I hate him! Why couldn’t I….”


“Peace, Jason,” Talia said softly, putting a hand on his shoulder.


“I wasn’t strong enough.”


“My offer still stands. I could help you get stronger.”


There was a long moment of silence before Jason looked up. His eyes sparked with unnatural green. “Alright. But not for him. I’m done with him. For me. For you. For Damian.”


A small smile appeared on Talia’s face. “For us,” she agreed softly.



Jason walked off the plane, a bag tossed over his shoulder and his sharp eyes scanning the runway. A grin split his tanned face as a small figure came hurtling towards him. He dropped his bag and held out his arms, sweeping the child up into a tight hug.


“Hey there, Dami!” Jason laughed, spinning around once.


The eight-year-old grinned up at him for a second before composing his features and saying, “Stop your foolishness, Jason.”


My foolishness? I’m not the one running across the runway,” Jason said teasingly.


“Tt.”


“Admit it! You missed me!”


Damian looked away. “Perhaps your distance was...less than ideal. But only in a practical sense!” he hastened to add. “Having my Dark Angel far away is not good in any sense of the word.”


“Technically I’m not your Dark Angel yet,” Jason pointed out, leaning over to scoop up his bag without putting Damian down.


The boy sniffed dismissively. “It is only a formality. Everyone knows you will be appointed now that you have completed your training.”
Jason grinned again as they approached the other figure standing with a regal smile on her face. “Talia!” he said, dropping his bag again to wrap his free arm around her.


“My son,” the woman said, squeezing back for the briefest of moments before stepping away. “Welcome home.”


“Good to be back,” he said, finally putting Damian -- who was squirming to be released -- down on the hot sand. “The All-Caste was great, but I can’t go too long without seeing my little brother, now can I?” He ruffled Damian’s hair, a motion that had the boy squawking and batting his hand away.


“My Father has requested your presence,” Talia said. “You will have time to freshen up and change. One of my men will escort you when it is time.”


“Right,” Jason said, grabbing his bag again. The three turned and began making their way to a jeep that had been parked a little ways off. “You guys will not believe the stories I have about the All-Caste!”


Once they arrived at the compound, Talia hurried off to attend to one of her many duties and Damian apparently had a lesson, so Jason went to his room by himself. It was a great deal fancier than the other assassin’s quarters and was right next to Damian’s. Jason had kept his room as plain as Talia allowed, with the only decorations being his collection of weaponry and some nice, white curtains. There were two fancy rugs covering the floor that really weren’t to his taste, but Talia had insisted.


“No son of mine will live in quarters fit for a common soldier,” she had said.


Jason smiled slightly at the memory. That had been one of the first times she had called him son, and the warm glow from her words had permeated his whole being for several days after.


He spent a few minutes longer than necessary in the shower, luxuriating over the hot water. What can he say? The All-Caste didn’t have heaters. When he finally got out there was a servant laying out clothes on his bed. Jason nodded at the servant and pulled on the loose pants and tunic, which were black and edged in green. Lazarus green. Jason grimaced at the color but finished getting dressed. He took the ceremonial sword from another servant and strapped it on. His other weapons were soon stowed on his person and he strode from the room, flanked by a guard.


The familiar sounds of bodies hitting each other and grunts of pain and exertion filled the air as Jason marched the familiar path to Ra’s al Ghul’s throne room. He entered and moved forward until he was in front of the man. The nineteen-year-old dropped to one knee, bowing his head.


“I see respect was one of the things they taught you,” the man said.


“Yes, my liege,” Jason said, swallowing his dislike for the man.


“Let’s see what else you have learned on your travels.”


Ten ninja descended from the ceiling. Jason didn’t get to his feet right away, instead kicking his leg out from his kneeling position and sweeping it along the ground. None of his opponents fell but they did jump back, giving him enough time and momentum to jump to his feet and launch himself at the first opponent. Jason fought hard and fast, drawing on his street days, time at the All-Caste, and his other teachers, rather than his Robin days. For one, they were painful to think about. Two, Robin had been flashy, at least partly a distraction, and in order to be an effective member of the League -- or a Dark Angel -- he had to be able to take down multiple opponents as fast as possible without drawing unnecessary attention. The three years of intensive training in all fighting styles imaginable paid off, and Jason soon stood alone among a crowd of fallen ninja, some moving, some not. Some would never move again; even in training and demonstrations they were expected to hold nothing back. Jason breathed hard, forcing acid green whispers to the back of his mind. Now was not the time to lose control.


Ra’s merely raised an eyebrow. Jason abruptly dropped to the ground. A sword swished over him, right where his neck had been a second ago. Jason pulled out his own sword and sliced at his attacker’s legs. It took several minutes, but eventually two more ninja were lying on the floor. These he were sure would never move again. He stayed in a ready stance, lifting one hand to wipe a splatter of blood away from his eyes. The tests went on. Jason did well, defeating all who came against him, but an endless stream of fresh opponents would eventually tire anyone and almost an hour later he was standing, panting, with blood streaming from countless small cuts and a hand pressed to his side where one opponent had gotten a good hit in. His left leg still felt partly asleep from a nerve strike. He looked around the room warily. It seemed to be empty of possible assailants -- though he kept an eye on the guards. Talia was watching from her spot near her father with a mostly aloof expression, though he could see the concern buried deep. Damian was sitting beside his mother, his eyes gleaming with excitement and admiration. And, maybe, a tiny bit of worry. Ra’s watched impassively.


“I must admit, you have skill, Ibn al Muhakik, ” the immortal said. “Perhaps one more opponent will be enough to determine your worth.” Jason gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on his sword. He would take whatever Ra’s threw at him. The man took in his defiant expression and a small, devious smile appeared on his face, which instantly made Jason nervous. “A Dark Angel to prove a Dark Angel,” the man said. “Fitting, isn’t it?” Jason’s eyes widened involuntarily. There were only two other Dark Angels. He did not know the name of Ra’s’, but everyone knew he had only one superior. That one...Talia’s was-. “Lady Shiva,” Ra’s said and Jason’s heart plummeted. “Perhaps you would like to test him.”


“I would be honored, my liege,” the woman said silkily, stalking forward. Jason licked his lips and held his sword at the ready. He could do this. He could do thi-. His thoughts turned to a litany of frantic curses as he tried to fend off the woman. He was actually sort of proud of himself for how long he lasted, considering it was Lady Shiva. He was pretty sure everyone knew going in how this would end, but at least he got two good hits and a few good blocks in before he was pinned to the ground with a knife at his throat -- though the hit she landed on his already hurt side almost made him scream.


Ra’s called an end to the match and Shiva moved back to her place a little behind Talia. Jason forced himself to his feet, trying to keep his breathing regular and calm, and stood at attention, ignoring the screaming pain that ran through his whole being. Ra’s looked at Shiva.
“Your assessment?” he asked casually.


The woman surveyed him. “Adequate,” she said finally. “He lasted longer than I expected. He will do for now, and considering where he was only a few years ago, it is likely that he will become even better with further training.”


“Are you offering?” Ra’s asked, raising an eyebrow in surprise. Shiva never took students unless she thought they could fulfill her death wish.


Shiva eyed Jason for a little longer before nodding once, decisively. “Yes. With his skills at the level they are now, it is doubtful that training with any other than another Dark Angel would increase his abilities.”


Ra’s sat back in his chair and studied Jason intently. Jason tightened his jaw and forced his face to be a smooth mask, devoid of pain.
“See that his injuries are tended to,” the man said abruptly, glancing at Talia. “The ceremony will be held tomorrow. And then,” his cold eyes bored into Jason’s tired ones, “we shall have a new Dark Angel.”


Jason bowed as deeply as he could with what he was pretty sure were at least two broken ribs and strode from the room. He did not allow himself to slump over or walk slower until his door was closed behind him. Then he fell to his knees and curled in on himself, one hand clutched to his side and another covering the largest cut he had, which had torn through his sleeve and sliced into his right forearm. His whole body was shaking with exhaustion and he forced his breathing to come slow and regular. He had suppressed the pain and tiredness for so long and now it hit him all at once. A few minutes passed with him trying to force himself up again to tend to his wounds. The door slid open and he shot upright instinctively, knowing that he could not show weakness. Gentle hands wrapped around his arm and pulled him to the bed and he relaxed at the touch.


“Talia,” he murmured.


“You did well, my son,” the woman said, pulling out the medkit he kept under his bed. She helped him take off the ruined clothing and began tending to his wounds, her touch light and gentle as she cleaned away blood and wrapped him in bandages. Her fingers pressed into his side and he hissed as his ribs shifted. “The cuts will be gone by tomorrow evening,” Talia said, sitting back on her heels. Your ribs will still be healing, though. Even your rate of healing cannot fix bone so quickly.”


“I’ll manage,” Jason said, pulling his new shirt on carefully, wincing at the movement. Even now the pain was slowly starting to fade. As in it felt more like a hard jab than a stab whenever he moved.


“If you wish, my scientists have finished the Lazarus synthesis. It is much less potent, but enough to heal bone in a matter of minutes without the bloodlust. It does cause elevated emotions but-”


“No.”


“It could be helpful.”


No, Talia.” Jason looked up at her. “Never again.”


She sighed slightly but put a comforting hand on his arm. “Alright then,” she said quietly. “You know I would never force you to do anything you are fully against.” Not something like this, at least. Not without an emergency.


Jason sighed in relief. “Thank you.” He glanced around as he pulled on some clean pants. “Where’s Damian?”


“My father wished that he remain behind and give an account of his lessons,” Talia said, going over to the window and looking out, her arms folded behind her back. “Once you are fully healed you will begin taking part in his training.”


“Yeah, maybe that’ll make up for getting my ass kicked five ways to Sunday by Shiva every day,” Jason groused.


Talia shot him a castigating look and he ducked his head slightly. “Are you not pleased to be learning from the best?” she asked, looking back out at the desert.


“Well, I mean, yeah,” Jason said, coming to stand next to her. “But she doesn’t exactly seem the teacher type.”


Talia hummed thoughtfully. “She has no patience for the dimwitted or lazy, but once you have earned her respect she can be amicable.”


“So all I have to do to survive is earn the respect of the greatest martial artist in the world. Great.”


“It might be easier than you expect. You have already made a good start.”


“Really?”


“She would not have offered to train you otherwise.”


“Huh.” Jason grabbed a glass of water from a small table and drained it in one go. There was a moment of comfortable silence as the pair looked out at the rising moon. Jason ran his finger around the rim of his glass. “You know-”


The door swinging open interrupted whatever it was he was about to say. Damian came rushing in. “Jason! Are you alright?” he demanded.


Jason smiled and ruffled his hair. For once, Damian did not object. “I’m ok, kiddo.”


Damian’s face relaxed for a split second. Then he lifted his chin and said, “I knew you would be. Those cretins could not possibly best you in battle.”


Jason grinned. “You know it! Now, you wanna show me some of your moves?” The corner of Talia’s mouth tilted down. Jason needed rest but he wasn’t likely to give it to himself, especially not if he thought he needed to reassure Damian. No matter. If worse came to worst she was not above drugging him.


Damian’s face lit up and he flashed a smile, turning and running from the room. Jason smirked and gave Talia a quick, two-finger salute before following his younger brother, a bit slower than he normally would. The woman watched him go, a warm feeling filling her chest and a slight smile tugging at her lips despite herself.


Though she would never -- could never -- let anyone see it, her boys were her world. She would do anything for them. Anything. She sobered slightly at the thought, her face wrinkling slightly in surprise. If it came to her father or her sons, she would drive a sword through the man herself. That was a feeling that no one had ever elicited in her before. Even her Beloved had only managed to make her waver between them. But if it would protect Jason or Damian? Nothing was too extreme. Her pushing Jason in the Pit against her father’s express orders was just one example. Talia sank down into the fancy chair stuck in the corner. She stared forward, unseeing. She expected this realization to bring about horror or disgust that she was so willing to betray her father, but as she pondered she realized that she was comfortable with the decision. Even subconsciously, the choice had been made long ago.


She only prayed she would never have to act on it.

Chapter Text

“Talia, this is ridiculous. Talia.” Jason followed Talia around the room as she opened draws and riffled through them.

“This is reality,” she said, selecting two shirts and sticking them in a small duffle bag.

“He’s eight!”

“He is also the Heir to the Demon!” Talia said, turning to face him sharply. “And as such he must carry out the Demon’s will!” She grabbed a pair of pants and stuffed it in the bag. Her voice softened. “I do not wish it on him. But I have no control over my father. I have no control over what happens to him.” Her hands stopped moving, frozen over the bag. “If I fight against my father’s decision, he will send me away.” She looked up, meeting Jason’s too-green eyes. “He will send me away and I would die because of it.”

“Your father wouldn’t kill you.”

“Separation from my sons would.”

That made Jason freeze in his tracks. He took a moment to process that before a tiny smile came on his face. “Yeah?” he asked quietly, looking at the carpet.

Talia’s own face softened slightly. “Yes.” She walked over to him, putting her hands on his shoulders and staring into his eyes. “You have been doing well as his Dark Angel. Now is the true test. Let no harm come to him. Or yourself.”

Jason nodded decisively.


“So, this is exciting,” Jason said.

“Tt. It is no more than what is expected,” Damian replied calmly.

“Uh huh, you’re telling me that you’re not excited at all about your first solo mission?”

“It is hardly ‘solo’. You will be there.”

Jason shrugged, folding his hands behind his head. “I’m just there as your Dark Angel. I’m not gonna get involved unless absolutely necessary.”

Damian raised an eyebrow at him. “And what would you consider absolutely necessary?”

Jason ticked them off on his fingers. “Imminent death, maiming, or bad hair days.”

“Tt. At least try to be professional.”

“Hey, we’re not on the ground yet! I have at least an hour before I have to be scary assassin man.”

“You are never ‘scary assassin man’,” Damian snarked.

Jason grinned challengingly at him. “Are you sure about that, squirt?”

The boy looked at him warily. That expression never meant anything good. The last time he had seen it, there had been hair-dye in his shampoo. Mother had been furious.

“Remember, I’m in charge of your training now,” Jason said cheerfully. “Might want to show a bit of respect.” He winked.

“Let’s just focus on the mission,” Damian said.

“I’m not supposed to help you!” Jason said, sounding scandalized. Damian shot him a dry look. Jason kept up the look for a few moments before grinning hugely and saying, “Alright, what’s the plan?”

Damian pulled out a folder and spread it on the small table in between their seats. “The target is Pierre Martin. He’s a quickly advancing politician with an agenda contrary to Grandfather’s. He lives in Neuilly sur Seine. I have blueprints.” Damian pointed at one of the pieces of paper. “The security is top of the line but there are recorded breaches here, here, and here.” Damian paused, frowning at the sheets of paper. “But it seems like it would be easier to take him out when he is not at home.”

“Could be,” Jason said, leaning back in his chair, “But a clean getaway could be harder. How would you do it if he was in public?”

“Shuriken?”

“Not good for long distance. You’d be caught. Too distinctive, too. We’re trying to avoid an incident, remember.”

Damian frowned at the papers for a few minutes in silence. Jason looked in the mini-fridge and was disappointed to find no alcohol. “What is-...you have got to be kidding me.”

Damian glanced up. “What?”

Jason held up the offending item. “It's a Capri Sun.”

“I thought you liked those.”

“It was a joke. Trust Talia not to let anything go.”

Damian ignored his brother. A few more moments of silence passed as he contemplated the likelihood of him successfully planting a weapon in the man’s bed. A slurping sound made him look up again, a biting comment on his tongue. He stopped, surprise taking over his annoyance. “Are you...drinking it?”

Jason pulled the straw out of his mouth. “What? It’s actually good!”

“You are pathetic.”

“Excuse you, I am infinite badassery in a smokin’ hot package.”

A biting retort was on the tip of Damian’s tongue but he suppressed it. “I still need to figure out what I’m going to do!”

Jason sat forward on his chair, his hands hanging between his knees, playful expression falling into a more serious one. “Alright look, you won’t be able to confirm any plan until we get there and make sure all this info is correct. So don’t stress too much.”

“I must complete this successfully! I am the Heir to the Demon and-”

“Ok, hold up,” Jason cut him off, holding up a hand. He met Damian’s eyes and the young boy could see his sincerity within them. “You are eight years old. And yeah, yeah, you’re the Demon’s heir, yada yada yada. The real thing to remember is that you are still learning. It’s ok to ask for help. That’s why I’m here!" Jason firmly shoved away the part of him that was screaming in horror at what he was helping and encouraging an eight-year-old to do. "So take a deep breath, relax, and think about this rationally. From the beginning. Is breaking into the house a feasible idea?”

“Yes….”

“Is it the best option you can think of?”

“No.”

“Alright, so we’ll put that on the backburner. What is the best option?”

“Perhaps the car? If we could plant something inside it, we could be safely gone by the time it activates.”

Jason rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yes, but remember, rigging weapons can take time. A small bomb -- one that wouldn't attract too much attention -- would probably be easiest.” He smirked at Damian’s grimace. “Yeah, yeah, it’s not ‘flashy’ and ruins the ‘ancient ninja’ aesthetic but its effective. Either way, it’s an idea and we’re brainstorming. Keep going.”

“We could try luring him somewhere alone, perhaps blackmail?”

“Ooh, promising. Any good secrets on those pages?” While Damian began looking through the pieces of paper it suddenly occurred to Jason what kind of blackmail could normally be used against rich people and politicians. “On second thought! Let me look.”

“Why?” Damian furrowed his brow at Jason.

“Because I said.”

“I have already read all of them, Jason.”

“Good for you, no need to do so again.”

“What are you-”

“Hush, little brother. It’s my job to protect you. More than just physically.”

“Huh?”

“Just give me the stuff about his history.”


Three days later Jason was standing beside Damian, listening as the boy gave his report to his grandfather. One scandal threatened to be revealed and the man practically fell over to comply, dismissing even the most dogged of guards. He hadn’t expected it to be that easy, been paranoid, actually, that it was a trap. Damian had not appreciated the delay his five security sweeps had caused. To be fair, it had been a pretty devastating secret. It had ended in a quick slice of a sword and a splatter of blood on an alley wall in Paris. Mission completed. Though Jason wished he could make it so that Damian never had to kill again, he was realistic enough to know that it was never going to happen. At least, not so long as they remained in the League.

“You did good, kiddo,” he said as they walked back to their quarters.

“I am aware,” Damian replied haughtily.

Jason glanced at him. He could tell that something was off. Damian had been unusually quiet as they had flown home, sitting and sharpening his sword almost obsessively. He waited until they had entered Damian’s room before turning and crouching, his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “It’s alright to be upset, Damian,” he said quietly. “What we do is hard and ugly. You don’t have to be fine.”

“Yes I do,” the boy said, standing stiffly. “I must be above these feelings.”

Jason laughed. “Kid, you’re not even at puberty yet. You’re going to feel lots of feelings.” Damian didn’t laugh. Jason sobered. “Listen, Shaqiq <brother>, no matter what they tell you, you are human and you are young. You are allowed to feel upset, you are allowed to feel sad, you are allowed to feel angry. Now, what are you feeling right now? Truly.”

Damian paused for a long moment before his face fell and his eyes grew watery. “He had a daughter,” he said quietly. “He had a daughter that was just born. Now she will grow up never knowing him. Always wondering what he was like and if he would be proud.” A tear slid down his face and Jason pulled him into a hug. He clutched Damian to him tightly. He knew there had to be something more than the killing that had bothered the boy. It wasn’t Damian’s first kill, after all. His face tightened slightly as he remembered the way Damian had eagerly asked questions about Bruce, dying to know even the slightest bit about him. Jason would have told him exactly what kind of a man his father was, but Talia had forbidden it, and she had looked so serious that Jason did not dare disobey.

Damian remained in Jason’s grasp until his breathing smoothed out. He pulled back and swiped angrily at his eyes before looking up at Jason. “This is the first time you’ve called me Shaqiq,” he said softly.

Jason smiled lopsidedly. “‘s true, isn’t it?”

Damian hugged him so hard Jason almost gasped. He gently wrapped his long arms around the boy. Damian rarely initiated hugs or anything affectionate, so he savored the moment. The brothers stayed like that for a long few moments before Damian stood up and said, “I’m going to take a shower.”

Jason nodded and waved him off. He stood and stretched. He had some work to do as well. Talia needed a report and Shiva had been very careful to tell him that jet lag was no excuse for skipping training. The teenager grimaced at the thought. Oh well, time to go get his ass kicked. Again.

Chapter Text

Damian crashed to the ground with a hard thud. Jason narrowed his eyes from his position in the corner of the room. “Again.” The boy’s face twisted even further into a determined glare and he leapt at his opponent once more. Their blades crashed together as the two figures danced around each other, leaping and slashing. Finally, Damian won out, trapping his opponent’s blade under his foot and breaking it.

“Face it, you will never beat me. I was born to be the Demon’s Fist.”

“All I wanted to do was try,” the girl said, bowing her head slightly.

Damian snorted. “Try? Try not to cry. You’ll only look weaker than you already do.” He pulled the sword away from her throat and turned away. Jason’s lips pursed slightly but he pushed off the wall and walked towards the center of the room.

Kafia <enough>! Alright guys-” His words were cut off when a streak of silver shot past him, headed right at Damian’s head. He lunged forward but before he could do anything Damian had already caught the blade. The boy turned and threw the knife back in one smooth movement. Jason took a millisecond to appreciate his skill before diving for the knife and grabbing the hilt right before the blade hit the girl’s right eye. She didn’t even flinch.

Jason took a steadying breath as he pulled the blade away and stood upright. He stared at the ceiling for a moment before saying, “Alright, sit. Now.” He dropped into a cross-legged position. Both trainees instantly came closer and copied him. Jason looked back and forth between them for a long few seconds. He sighed and rubbed his face, wondering what to do.

“Ok, first of all, nice work, Damian, disarming her. The insults were unnecessary in a training situation, though.”

“She challenged me!” the boy protested.

Jason shot him a stern look and the boy subsided. “It’s still training. Or didn’t you notice when you lost and I called for you to continue?” Damian flushed red but Jason ignored him. He turned to the girl. “Mara. Again, training. Once I call an end to it, it is over understood?”

The girl bowed her head. “Yes, Mudarris <Teacher>.”

“That goes for you too, Damian. You should have just given the knife to me. You had good technique though, both of you. Keep it aimed at targets unless I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mudarris,” they both said together.

Jason rose to his feet. “Alright then. I’ll let it slide this time, but if either of you continue an attack when I stop it again there will be consequences.” Both children bowed in acknowledgment. Jason nodded and turned to leave.

Mudarris?” a quiet voice stopped him. He turned and raised an eyebrow at Mara.

“Yes?”

She hesitated but said, “Why did you stop the knife?” Her hand lightly touched her eye. “No one else would have done the same.”

Jason stared at her for a long moment. “Some scars should not be left,” he said finally. “Now go outside and play nicely together. That’s an order!”

Damian frowned after his brother, noticing the way his hand subconsciously rubbed at his chest. He was drawn out of his thoughts when his cousin tapped his arm. “Come, Damian,” she said. “We have received an order.” He looked at her and his frown lightened slightly. Jason always ended their lessons with ordering them to go play together. It was ludicrous, really, but it made the man happy, so Damian did it. And if it was...amusing on occasion, no one had to know.

Jason made his way to his own lesson with Lady Shiva. He sighed slightly before squaring his shoulders and entering. He had barely crossed the threshold when he was dodging to the side to avoid a shuriken and ducking low to the ground, darting along the wall before charging towards the woman in the middle of the room. She flung several more projectiles at him before backflipping out of the way of his swing and sweeping his legs out from under him. Jason twisted back onto his feet and flung a shuriken of his own, which didn’t do much other than allowing him a split second to get his bearings. Then Shiva was on him again. They fought for a few minutes longer before she had his arm in a painful lock. Jason slowed his breathing and very carefully did not move to avoid breaking his arm. After a moment of considering his options, he reluctantly tapped out. Shiva released him and he hauled himself to his feet.

“You are still too slow,” she said. “You remain in one place too long, deliberate your next move too slowly, it makes it easy for your movements to be anticipated.”

“Says the woman with precognition,” Jason grumbled, getting back into his stance.

The woman merely smirked before attacking again.

It was when Jason was finally heading back to his room -- fully ready to just fall face-first into bed and maybe read for a while -- that he received the summons from Ra’s. He cursed internally and redirected his steps to the throne room, trying not to aggravate any of the new -- or old for that matter -- bruises that Shiva always left him with. He entered and was taken momentarily aback by the sight of Damian and Mara. He blinked and looked back at Ra’s, bowing.

“You called me, my liege?” he asked politely.

“It has come to my attention that my grandchildren's training session did not end well,” the immortal said.

Jason stood upright and frowned, slightly confused. Ra’s didn't usually care what happened in lessons as long as Damian succeeded and didn’t get seriously hurt. “I must admit, my liege, that I am not entirely sure what you are referring to.”

Ra’s already cool look grew chilly. “Not only did you fail to intercept a weapon when it was thrown at your charge, but you prevented due punishment from being delivered to the assailant.”

Jason gritted his teeth. It was no secret what Ra’s thought of his granddaughter, but he had hoped that Ra’s obsession with family would keep her safe. It was a struggle, but he managed to keep his tone compliant. “And by assailant, you mean Mara?”

“Yes.”

Jason considered for a second and had to quell the rage that was beginning to rise in his throat. This was the time for careful words and actions, not angry thoughtlessness. That would only serve to hurt everyone involved. “It is true that I did not intercept the knife in time,” he said slowly. “I had lowered my guard for a moment. It is not a mistake that will occur again, I assure you. As for Mara,” he met the man’s eyes in a moment that was probably more stupid than brave, “I do not see the point in blinding someone for a moment of thoughtlessness in a training exercise. If Mara were even half-blinded her ability to serve would be greatly hampered, sire.”

Ra’s studied him through narrowed eyes for a moment. “Regardless of the intention or result, my heir was attacked and the perpetrator must be punished.”

Jason’s eyes darted to Mara. She was standing stiff and silent, her gaze locked straight ahead. He had been training her for a few weeks now, though, and he could see how afraid she was. Ra’s snapped his fingers and one of the guards stepped forward, unsheathing a long knife. The person -- gender was impossible to tell in those outfits -- approached the girl and raised the weapon. Jason knew what they were going to do and acted on instinct. A quick flick of his wrist had a shuriken embedding itself into the ninja’s neck. The guard fell, their knife barely missing Mara’s eye.

Jason met Ra’s eyes, a spark of challenge appearing. “These children are under my protection,” he said calmly, folding his arms behind his back. “And I will not permit them to be maimed.”

“You would dare go against the order of the Demon’s Head!” Ra’s yelled, his voice echoing in the deathly silent chamber.

“The blame for today’s event is mine, my liege,” Jason said simply. “If anyone is to be punished, let it be me.” He caught a glimpse of both Mara and Damian looking at him with grateful and horrified looks, respectively, before they snapped back to attention.

Ra’s sat back in his throne, stroking his beard. “And what is there to prevent me from punishing you both?” he asked softly.

Jason took a deep breath. This was going to get him in so much trouble. “If you give me your word that they both will remain unharmed, I will not fight whatever punishment you decide upon, my liege.”

Ra’s raised one eyebrow, his tone mocking. “And if I do not? You believe you could avoid my wrath by simply not cooperating?”

“No,” Jason said, staring the man dead in the eye. “I would eventually be subdued. But I would take down enough of your men on the way that even your vast reserves would feel it.” Time for the final nail in his coffin. Jason grinned cockily -- which he knew Ra’s hated -- and said, “And we both know I can.” He purposefully left off the honorific.

Ra’s face darkened angrily before a rather sadistic smile appeared, which did not do anything for Jason’s blood pressure. “Very well,” he said, sitting back. “You have my word that they will not be harmed.” Jason did not let the relief he felt show on his face, bowing stiffly in thanks. “As for you,” Ra’s continued thoughtfully, “you will be flogged for your transgressions.” Jason’s face did not change but his heart leapt into a higher gear. The old man flicked his hand and two guards approached Jason, another one appearing from the shadows along the wall carrying rattan canes. The moving of his throat was the only thing that gave away the fact that Jason was not completely calm. He knew from experience how much those canes could hurt -- they were assassins, corporal punishment was practically their job description -- and he had a strong feeling that this would be much worse than anything he had received before.

“Your shirt, Ibn al Almukhbir,” Ra’s said.

Jason went to pull his loose training shirt off but hesitated. He glanced at Damian. “My liege, would it be too much to ask that Damian and Mara leave?”

Ra’s smile grew. “I think it would. They were part of the transgression, it seems fitting they be present for the punishment.”

Jason gritted his teeth but bowed his head slightly. Best not to make the man any more angry than he already was. He had gotten the promise, and an al Ghul never breaks their word. “Of course, my liege.” He pulled off his shirt, quickly facing away from his younger brother.

At a command from Ra’s, the two guards led Jason over to one of the ornate pillars and clamped the manacles hanging from it around his wrists. Assassins: always prepared, Jason thought sardonically. Jason tried to relax his muscles, but his arms being jerked above his head made it a bit hard. He could hear the guards making little practice swings with the canes and he had to consciously stop himself from yelling at them to get on with it already.

“How many strokes, my liege?” one of the assassins asked. Jason tensed automatically.

“Until I tell you to stop,” Ra’s said flippantly. Jason ground his teeth together. That bastard! At least if he had a number he could count his way through it.

The first stroke fell without warning. For the first bit he could ignore the hits relatively easily. He had experienced much worse. As the blows continued to fall -- so fast he had trouble believing it was only two people -- he focused on distracting himself, doing breathing exercises and trying to clear his mind. As Ra’s showed no signs of ordering an end to it, he began falling back on his Robin days subconsciously, reciting the alphabet backwards and in different languages. After several minutes, though, the welts and bruises that were quickly covering his back and legs became unignorable, the blood trailing down his body making him twitch. He jerked with each strike and bit his lip hard to keep from yelling when one hit the inside of his knee and made his legs buckle. His wrists were rapidly becoming raw and he knew that he would soon be hitting his limit. Already the green whispers that never truly left him alone were setting his blood boiling and he knew his control -- painstakingly seized day by day -- was weakening. It was only his defiant refusal to show that side of himself to Damian that kept him from surrendering to the Pit -- not that doing so would help him any. Finally, finally, the constant barrage of blows stopped. Jason sagged slightly against the pillar, drawing in a ragged breath. He relaxed a bit too soon, apparently, because one final strike landed and he let out a strangled noise before he could stop himself.

That must have been what Ra’s had been waiting for because he finally said, “Kafia <enough>!” There was a moment of silence as the guards unshackled Jason and dropped him to the ground. Jason lay there for a moment before slowly forcing himself up, shaking. He only made it to his knees. Ra’s' lip curled. “Take him to the doctors,” he said. Jason supposed he should be grateful that he was still valuable enough to be given medical treatment. It was a cold comfort.

Jason’s whole back and legs were on fire and he focused on not screaming as the guards roughly grabbed him and dragged him off. He thanked whatever higher being may be watching when they dumped him on a stretcher instead of just pulling him through the compound. Talia must have shown up at some point because she was striding along beside the stretcher, her mouth a thin line. She did not speak until they reached the infirmary and he was on the doctor’s table. “What were you thinking?!” she demanded furiously. Jason winced as the doctors cut away his pants to see the extent of the damage. “What possessed you to antagonize him like that? You know better!”

“Couldn’t let him cut out Mara’s eye,” Jason gritted out.

Talia threw her hands in the air. “So instead you get yourself flogged?! How are you to perform your duties if you cannot even walk?”

Jason turned his head slightly and smirked at her. “Oh come on, Tals, we both know that’s not the real reason you’re worried.” She glared at him but he was mostly immune. “‘sides, I’ve had worse. Those canes’ve got nothin’ on a crowbar.” This may have been the wrong thing to say, as Talia now looked like she was seriously considering hitting him herself. Jason reached out one arm and grabbed her hand. “Relax, Tals,” he said softly, fighting to keep the pain out of his voice. “I’m fine. He just caught me by surprise at the end is all.”

Talia sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I do not understand this self-sacrificing streak you have,” she muttered. “It must be from your father.”

Jason stiffened. “He wasn’t around enough for me to tell,” he said, although he knew exactly who she meant.

Talia rolled her eyes but let the matter drop. “You must remember to take care of yourself as well as others,” she said quietly, still carding her hand through his hair.

“Yeah, I know.”

Jason hissed as one of the nurses began slathering him with ointment. “How’s it look, doc?” he asked, trying to sound cheerful.

The doctor tisked. “You will be fine momentarily.”

“Wait, what?” Jason twisted his neck to look at the doctor but the man was outside of his sightline. “What does that mean?”

“We have been ordered to administer the Lazarus synthesis to all important members upon injury.”

“Wait, the Lazarus synthesis?! Hell no!” Jason tried to get off the table but three orderlies held him down. He bucked as much as he could but instantly stilled, letting out a low hiss at the pain the movement gave him. “Talia!”

“I will not allow it,” Talia said, stepping in front of the doctor.

“I’m sorry,” the man said, and he really sounded it. Talia briefly wondered if this was one of the doctors that had helped her treat Jason before the Pit. “Your father has declared that there be no exceptions.”

“Damn bastard!” Jason yelled, still struggling.

“No,” Talia said.

“You can either move aside or you can be moved,” the doctor said regretfully. “Your father ordered us to inform him if anyone was giving us trouble about this.”

Talia’s fist clenched and it took a great amount of willpower not to strike the man. She looked at Jason. He looked panicked. She swallowed. Was this the time she had to make the choice? No, it couldn’t be. There was no way Jason could run with his injuries. But after...nothing was stopping them from running after. Even with her revelation from a few weeks ago, the ease of the thought unbalanced her. She shook it off and went back to Jason’s side, gripping his hand tightly. She met his eyes and he must have seen her decision within them because he redoubled his efforts.

“No! Talia please!” he begged. Her heart broke a bit further. She closed her eyes tightly and squeezed his hand.

“Be brave,” she whispered.

“No! NO! Talia!”

She could not stand this. Not with him crying out for her. When had she grown so weak? But was it truly a weakness, to care? She dismissed the thought for now and leaned forward, putting her mouth right up to his ear. “You must heal,” she murmured. “You must heal so we can run.”

He froze. “What?” he asked, his voice cracking.

She pushed his hair back and continued speaking in the quietest whisper. “You must heal so that we can run. You, me, Damian.”

“And Mara,” he added, his breathing still coming fast.

Talia grimaced. “And Mara,” she agreed.

Jason closed his eyes and his jaw tensed. He opened his eyes and there was determination sparking in their green depths. “Fine. Do it.”

The doctor stepped forward and quickly injected the green liquid into Jason’s arm. The teenager scrunched his eyes shut and let out a feral scream as the substance burned through his veins. Talia squeezed his hand tightly and felt rage rise in her towards her father. The orderlies held Jason as still as possible as he thrashed around. Talia watched as the welts and cuts on his back, shoulders, and legs glowed green before gradually closing over. The bruises that littered his body disappeared as well. Finally, the screaming stopped and Jason slumped down on the table. He was breathing hard, almost gasping, and Talia quickly resumed running her hand through his sweat-soaked locks.

“You’re alright, you’re alright,” she murmured quietly. He slowly stilled, his breathing coming slower. Talia watched his eyes close. “Astareh ya abnay <Rest, my son>. When you wake, we will be free.”

Chapter Text

Jason jerked awake, his gaze shooting around the room and his hand flying to his chest. He paused for a moment before slowly reaching back and touching his shoulder. No pain. He threw off the covers and inspected his legs. Nothing. He flopped back onto his pillow, closing his eyes and letting out a moan. They snapped back open when he remembered what Talia had said, just before the haze of green had swamped his memories. Could she possibly be serious? Would she really leave behind everything she had here just because he had gotten hurt? He would like to think that she would, but in all the time Bruce had been with her, she had never gone against her father, so why would she do it for him?

Jason got up, stretching the kinks out of his back and walking towards the door. Maybe he had imagined it.

As he reached for the door knob, the door swung open and Talia marched in. She looked him up and down and said, “Good, you have risen. Get dressed, we do not have long.” She tossed him some dark clothes and continued, “I have already packed for you, funds are being funneled to my accounts as we speak, our boat and plane are prepped and I have men standing by to divert attention if necessary.”

Jason stared at her dumbly. “Wait...what?”

Talia sighed. “Try to keep up, darling. We’re leaving.” She patted his cheek and marched back to the door. “Be in my quarters in ten minutes.”

Jason stared at the door blankly for a few moments before snapping out of it and quickly washing and pulling on his clothes. He looked longingly at his collection of weapons before frowning. Something was off. He grinned as he realized that they had been replaced with carefully crafted replicas. Trust Talia to know he’d want them. He grabbed his everyday weapons from his closet and strapped or stowed them all over his body. "A good assassin-ninja is always prepared," he muttered. He scanned his room for anything he might be forgetting but it seemed like Talia really had packed everything.

When he reached Talia’s room, Damian was already there, looking somehow immaculately groomed. Jason squinted at him. “Witchcraft,” he said, pointing. “No way is your hair that good after you crawl out of bed.”

“I have not been to bed, Akhi <brother>,” the boy said. “I have been helping Mother prepare.”

“How long was I out?”

“About four hours,” Talia said, coming out of her huge closet with a duffle-bag over her shoulder.

“And you got all this done in that little time?”

“I have long had contingency plans in place for an occasion like this,” the woman said flippantly.

Jason decided to just accept that. He looked around the room. “Where’s Mara?”

Talia grimaced slightly. “Are you sure you want to bring her? It would complicate things greatly.”

Jason folded his arms. “Ra’s would kill her if we left her alone. You know that.”

Talia threw her hands in the air. “Then she dies! Better her than either of you.”

Jason just looked at her silently, a sense of profound disappointment coming over him. Sometimes he forgot what Talia could be like to those she did not care for. She was always so good to him and Damian, he forgot sometimes the way she had been raised, the things she believed in. That innocents often meant next to nothing to her. Talia stared right back for a long moment before sighing and saying, “And what if she refuses? She could not be left alive.”

“She won’t refuse,” Jason said, turning and striding from the room. He marched through the halls, nodding at guards and making his way to Mara’s quarters, which were much less impressive than Damian’s, or even his. He knocked and she opened the door, blinking in surprise at seeing him.

Mudarris,” she said, stepping back. “What are you doing here?”

Jason stepped inside and closed the door, glancing around the room. “Listen to me, Mara. We’re leaving.”

“What?”

“Me, Talia, Damian...and you.”

“Leaving? Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.” Jason spun around and met her eyes. “Mara, if you stay here alone, Ra’s will kill you. He won’t believe that you weren’t involved. We are leaving tonight. You have to come with us.”

The girl backed up until her back hit the door. “Leave the League? But- but we can’t do that! Grandfather would hunt us down-”

“Talia has that under control,” Jason said. “You must pack quickly. We are leaving in a matter of minutes.” He knelt down and put his hands on her shoulders. “Please, Mara. Please come.”

The girl stared at him for a long second. “I- I can’t! I have sworn loyalty! You have as well!”

Jason stood up. “Talia believes it is not safe for us here. My allegiance is to her and Damian. If he is in danger I will do anything to remove him from it.” His eyes pleaded with her. “I want to do the same for you. I know I’m not your Dark Angel officially. But I’ve been training you as long as I have Damian and I don’t want to leave you here.”

“You have lost your sanity!”

Jason’s face fell. “Listen, Mara. If you don’t come, Ra’s will kill you. And now that you know we’re leaving…. I cannot allow you to tell him.”

Her eyes grew wide and her face paled. “You...you will kill me?” she whispered.

Jason looked down at her. “No,” he said. “I do not kill innocents.” A quick strike to her neck had the girl falling to the ground. Jason looked at her sadly. “But I cannot leave you here to betray us or die either.” He rummaged through the tiny room quickly, finding a standard-issued duffle under Mara’s bed and throwing everything that would fit into it. He found her three stashes of weapons and shoved them all in as well. Once he was pretty sure the room was completely empty of her personal things -- there weren’t that many -- he scooped the eight-year-old over his shoulder and hurried back to Talia’s room, avoiding the guards whenever possible. He shouldered open the door and said, “Alright, let’s get going.”

Talia frowned disapprovingly at the sight of her niece but said, “Through the window. The guards outside are mine.”

The group made their way out of the compound and to a river a little way off. A shrouded figure helped them onto a small boat and pushed off into the water. No words were exchanged. It seemed that they floated along for hours, the only sounds being the quiet splash of water on the hull and the creak of the rower’s oars, before they reached the mouth of the river. A seaplane was sitting on the water just ahead and another dark figure pulled the passengers aboard. Jason passed Mara to the ninja before climbing in himself. Talia nodded to the person in the boat, who simply bowed slightly before turning back towards land. The plane’s engine started with a dull roar and Jason quickly strapped himself in. It was only when they were in the air for several minutes with no explosions or commotion of any kind that the teenager relaxed slightly. He glanced at Damian. The boy was sitting in the back of the plane, next to a still-unconscious Mara. The eight-year-old looked back at him silently.

“So,” Jason said. “Where are we headed?”

“Farkhor,” Talia answered, naming a decently sized town on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, not too far from where they were now. “We have another plane waiting for us there, one that is better suited to long travel.”

“Where to after that?”

“I have not yet decided.”

“I hear Sweden is nice this time of year,” Jason said, grinning playfully.

Talia met his gaze steadily. “It will have to be a place with limited League contact. The funds have completed transferring and my allies have been informed. We will need to lie low for a while.”

“Well that shouldn’t be too hard,” the teenager said, stretching out in his seat and folding his hands behind his head. “I’m used to being a ghost. I can give you guys pointers.” A flicker of emotion went over Talia’s face before she replaced it with a severe look. Jason waved a hand. “I’m fine, Talia.”

“So you keep saying,” she murmured.


Jason flopped down on the bed, arms and legs spread out like a starfish. “Do you have any idea how nice it is to see a real, Western, bed?” he moaned.

“Tt, cease your nonsense, Jason.”

“It’s not nonsense,” the teenager said, lifting his head up and shooting a look at the younger boy. He pointed accusingly. “You don’t appreciate it because you’ve been stunted by a lifetime of living with tiny, thin, assassin beds.”

“My bed was the height of luxury!”

“No,” Jason said, smushing his face into the pillows. “Just try the bed and we’ll see.”

Damian huffed and stomped over the opposite bed. He climbed up and lay stiffly on it, limbs straight as boards. Jason turned his head and frowned at the boy. “You sleep like a corpse,” he informed his little brother. Damian shot him a glare and stared up at the ceiling.

“It is...adequate,” he finally admitted.

Jason grinned. He rolled over onto his back and stretched his arms out before pulling them back down and tucking them under his head. “Tals! Please tell me we’re staying at least a little while?”

Talia exited the bathroom -- where she had been removing her disguise -- and frowned slightly at Jason. “For a few days.”

Jason grunted, closing his eyes. “Where’s Mara?” he asked after a moment.

“I wouldn’t know,” came Talia’s disinterested answer.

Jason shot upright, his eyes narrowed. “What,” he asked flatly.

Talia glanced at him from where she was unpacking her bag. “I did not realize it was my job to keep an eye on the girl.”

“That girl is your niece, damn it! What do you have against her? She’s family!”

“Her father was disowned. She is not family.”

Jason growled angrily and stood up, stalking over to his combat boots and jerking them on. “How long?”

“No more than fifteen minutes,” the woman said, shaking out a shirt and inspecting it with pursed lips. Damian had sat up and was watching both of them warily.

“She better not be hurt, Talia!” Jason said, snatching a jacket -- not his beloved leather one, unfortunately, too conspicuous -- and storming to the door.

The woman didn’t bother to respond.

Jason burst out of the hotel and looked around, a chill wind ruffling his hair. Mara may not have been quite as good as Damian in the combat department, but she easily matched him in stealth. Jason gritted his teeth. Damn Talia and her convoluted beliefs in family! Jason’s eyes flicked over all the buildings and then dropped to the street. Mara was wearing a bright pink jacket -- something she had been furious about but added to their disguise -- so it shouldn’t be that hard to spot her, even in the gathering darkness! Unless she ditched it. Jason cursed again. It would be freezing out, once true night fell! If Mara got sick Jason was going to get her to puke on Talia. He spun in a circle searching desperately for something he could have missed. Think Jason! What did she do the other times she ran? Jason’s head shot up. She had always headed towards transportation. The nearest being the subway.

Jason took off, moving quickly but as inconspicuously as possible through the people walking on the sidewalk. It didn’t take him long to reach the subway and he stared down into the entrance with some trepidation. Mara didn’t have any money on her -- he made sure of it after her first attempt at running -- but she could easily steal some or sneak onboard a train headed who knows where! Jason ran a hand through his hair distractedly as he plunged down into the depths of the train station. Thankfully, it was well-lit and large enough that any latent claustrophobia didn’t kick in. It would be hard enough to locate his errant assassin without the walls pushing in on him.

It took much longer than he would have liked, but he finally located a small figure sitting and shivering -- coatless, he noticed, brow furrowing in a mix of anger and concern -- on a bench waiting for the next train. It was pure luck that she hadn’t disappeared already. The only reason she wasn’t gone already was because one of the outgoing trains had unexpectedly needed maintenance, delaying both arrivals and departures. He walked up to her casually, sitting a few feet away, close enough that she could hear him without having to raise his voice. “So, is your grandfather really that much better than us? I thought we were getting along pretty well.”

The girl’s whole body was tense as a violin string. She looked at Jason out of the corner of her eye, ready to fight or flee. Those were the only options she thought existed. Jason sighed. “Why do you keep doing this, Mara? We haven’t hurt you. You’ll just get lost and killed going off by yourself.” Silence. He turned the slightest bit towards her, careful to keep his body language non-threatening. “Come back, Mara. Your grandfather won’t be happy to see you. He’ll demand to know our plans and he won’t care that you don’t know anything. He’ll kill you. You do know that.”

“Better to die loyal than live a traitor,” Mara said, staring straight ahead with a hard expression.

Jason felt something ugly and constricting unfolding in his chest at hearing those words from an eight-year-old. He sighed, leaning his head back against the back of the bench and staring up at the roof.

“Mara, please,” he finally said, allowing his emotions to turn his words croaky and make his voice crack. He sat up and looked at her, the desperation he was starting to feel obvious. “I can’t lose more family, Mara! I can’t handle it! I’m unstable enough as it is! Ra’s will kill you and then I’ll try to kill him and then Damian and Talia and me are all going to end up dead too!”

He could see Mara’s throat move as she swallowed. Her eyes were still locked on the wall. A few long moments passed. Jason’s eyes narrowed.


Jason shouldered his way through the hotel room door, Mara slung over one shoulder. This seemed to be an increasingly common position for them. He laid the girl down on the second bed and jerked his shoes off. He shot a look around the room. Damian and Talia were nowhere to be seen. He grumbled to himself as he changed and flopped down on the bed, resuming his previous position and letting out a long sigh as the tension began to drain from his body. He hadn’t slept for a few nights and hadn’t slept well for...a long time -- the result of being on the run, nightmares, and having your sleep schedule messed up for most of your life. He lay there for a second before letting out a long, heartfelt groan as he realized he couldn't sleep just yet. He rolled off the bed again, slowly straightening up and making his way over to the desk, where Talia had put their laptop. He sat down heavily and began planning their next move.

About twenty minutes later, Talia and Damian finally returned. Jason turned to look at them, his eyes bloodshot. “Where did you two disappear to?”

“We were scouting the area,” Damian said. “Mother was teaching me to predict people’s movements.”

“Great.” Jason stood up and stretched his back. “I’m going to sleep now.”

“When will Mara wake up?” Damian asked, looking over at his cousin.

“I gave her some pretty heavy sedatives,” Jason said. He collapsed onto the bed once again and wriggled around until he was under the covers. Damian scoffed but Jason just flipped him off and buried his head in his pillow. “She should stay asleep ‘til tomorrow morning,” his muffled voice said. “Like me.” He was too exhausted to argue with Talia about her treatment of Mara. He’d deal with it in the morning, when he could see straight.

Chapter Text

He never did get to the point where he could see completely straight, seeing how Talia shook him awake only a few hours after he fell asleep. He shot upright as he always did -- the days of slowly waking up, of knowing he was safe, had only come late in his first life and not at all in his second -- and swung blindly at his attacker. His arm was caught and a hand slapped him across the face. It wasn't particularly hard, but it did the trick of clearing his mind.


“Talia?” he asked, voice still hoarse with sleep.


“They have found us.” Her tense, harsh whisper sent adrenaline surging through him and he jumped from the bed, jerking on his clothes and hastily tying his boots.


“How close?” he asked, checking that his weapons were still there.


“They have not yet located our building, but they are within a mile.”


Jason swore violently and grabbed his duffle bag. Most of their belongings had been stashed in a safe location that no one -- not even Jason -- knew besides Talia, so they could travel light and move quickly. His eyes shot to the bed where Mara had been. Empty. He took two long strides into the adjoining room where Damian and Talia had been sleeping. Empty too. He spun around. “Where are they?” he hissed.


“Relax, Jason. They await us at the stairs. I took the precaution of them leaving before I woke you. I know you do not like them seeing you...distressed.”


Jason blinked for a second before nodding gruffly, not trusting his voice at the moment. Damn it! He was trying to be angry with her!
They both hurried down the hallway to the stairs, where they found a struggling Mara and Damian. “Kafia!” he snapped, his already worn temper fraying further. The children froze instinctively and he slung his duffle bag over his shoulder, grabbing each of their wrists and storming down the stairs. After the surprise and conditioning wore off, Mara began twisting and fighting his grasp. He resisted the urge to tighten his grip, knowing he could crush her wrist if he wasn’t careful. As it was, he settling for giving her arm a warning jerk and saying, “I will knock you out again.” She subsided, but he knew better than to think she was giving up. Damian wasn’t fighting him, though he did stumble slightly at the pace Jason was setting down the stairs. The teenager forced himself to do some breathing exercises, forcing the panic down along with the toxic voices that brushed against his consciousness. Now was not the time to freak out. Later.

And when exactly is later? a voice in his head asked dryly. He didn’t have an answer.


The four of them paused at the outside door, Jason scanning the grounds carefully. Now that the adrenaline was pounding through him, he was completely alert. Learning how to go days without proper rest or food was one of the many things the League taught and that training was coming to the forefront now. Jason knew that he would be crashing hard once they reached somewhere safe, but he filed that under ‘Later’ as well. He gave Talia a brief nod and shouldered open the door, moving instantly for the deep shadows cast by the building. They made their way rapidly through the streets bright with lights from stores and restaurants and Jason hailed a sleek black cab. They all clambered in, Jason in the back with Mara and Damian and Talia in the passenger seat.


“The airport,” the woman said crisply.


The taxi driver flashed them a cheerful grin. “Righty-o! Airport, coming up.”


They rode in silence, Jason still keeping a hard grip on Mara’s wrist, though he released Damian. The younger boy stared out the window, his almost-green eyes watchful. Jason frowned after a moment, watching the street signs out his own window. “Wait a sec,” he said, “this isn’t how you get to the airport.”


The driver met his eyes in the rearview mirror. The laughing, cheerful expression was gone, replaced by the steely, deadened look Jason had come to recognize in all of Ra’s’ low-ranking assassins. Hell, he had worn it himself more than once. The man suddenly jerked the steering wheel to the side and Damian slammed into Jason. Wheels squealed and metal shrieked as the car forced itself into an alley barely wide enough for it. Jason snarled furiously and would have dispatched the assassin himself if Talia hadn’t already beaten him to it. The man’s neck snapped with a horrible cracking sound and the car swerved the few inches left into the wall, accompanied by a cacophony of screeching metal. Jason instinctively pulled Damian and Mara to his sides, shielding them from any glass.


“They will be on us any second,” Talia said, climbing over the dead man to break open the small sunroof and sliding through. Jason passed Damian up to the woman and then a struggling Mara.


“Hold onto her,” he snarled, and for once Talia complied. Jason forced his bulky frame through the small opening, his clothes straining as he almost got stuck. He finally got through and rose to a crouch on the roof. “What’s the plan, Talia?”


“The flight is prepared. It leaves in thirty minutes.”


“And the airport is at least ten minutes away on foot,” Jason mused. “Will we be able to get through security?”


“I have a contact. They will ensure we make it.”


“Then we better get moving.”


The quartet hurried through the streets, Jason dragging Mara along behind him. They were only a few blocks away from the airport, cutting through a side street, when shadows dropped around them. Jason’s throwing knives were instantly in his hand. “Talia, go.” He shoved Mara to the woman and threw the knives with deadly accuracy. Three assassins fell to the ground. A glance over his shoulder showed that Talia had dispatched the fighters blocking her path and was running down the street, an eight-year-old in each hand. Some of the shadows broke off to follow. Jason ran three strides, kicked off a nearby wall, and backflipped into their path. Knowing that his family was, for the moment, on their way to safety, he stared down the crowd of ninjas. A bloodthirsty grin grew on his face as he finally allowed the green that constantly lurked on the edges of his vision to take over.


The fight was swift and brutal. Jason darted through the assassins like a snake, snapping necks here, a stab to the heart there, a shuriken to the eye if he was feeling merciful, a slice to the gut if he wasn’t. All in all, it was only about five minutes between Jason standing and facing a small horde of assassins, and Jason standing among the broken and bleeding bodies of said assassins.


The bloodthirsty grin hadn’t left his face while he was fighting and Jason abruptly had the insane urge to laugh. His blood was singing through his veins and he hadn’t felt this alive since…. Since…. A memory ran unbidden through his mind. “This is the best day of my life!”

Jason shuddered, the euphoria draining from his body along with all of his energy. He braced a hand on the wall and focused on breathing and pushing the madness back to the recesses of his mind. He didn’t have time to meditate, to use the methods Ducra had taught him, but he knew he had to get control of himself before he went among other people. The Pit didn’t discriminate between innocent bystanders and assailants.


Once he was reasonably sure that he wouldn’t kill anyone who looked at him wrong, Jason stripped off his jacket, which was now covered in blood stains. He had done his best to be careful -- though the Pit didn’t care much about his well-being as long as he survived -- and had escaped with only a few bruises and a shallow cut along his right arm, but his clothes weren’t so lucky. Fortunately, the jacket had protected his shirt and the black cargo pants he was wearing were dark enough that the blood didn’t show that much. The teenager grabbed any weapons left in the garment, balled it up, and threw it into the storm drain. He could always get another one. Once he had finished collecting and restashing whatever weapons he could easily find, he set off at a jog for the airport. He sagged slightly in relief when he saw Talia and the kids just about to go through security. Ignoring the annoyed cries of the people in line, he hurried up to them, ducking under the line dividers instead of vaulting over. Discretion and all that.


Talia raked her eyes over him and was apparently mostly satisfied with what she saw, though her lips pursed at the slight bulge that gave away the hastily bandaged wound on his right arm.


The four of them breezed through security. Jason wasn’t entirely sure which of the attendants was Talia’s contact or if there were more than one, but either way they were through to the waiting area in a matter of minutes. A fortunate thing, as it turns out, because Jason had just enough time to duck into the bathroom and change his clothes before their section was called to board.


Jason led the way onto the plane, giving a careful once-over of the plane’s other passengers. No one looked to be carrying any weapons, and none of them had the look of assassins. You could never be too careful though, and Jason made sure to plant Mara and Damian in the two middle seats of their row. Talia sat on the other end. Jason momentarily wished for a window seat but the childish longing was crushed by practicality born of years of training. A window seat would leave him boxed in and vulnerable to many attacks. Not to mention, only the middle row of the plane had four seats, so their party would have had to be divided.


No, this was much better.


But he still wished he could see the bright lights of the city fall away from them.


After a quick confirming glance with Talia that there seemed to be no immediate threat, Jason leaned back in his seat with a sigh of relief. He was exhausted. He placed a hand on Mara’s knee and leaned back in his seat. If she tried to leave her seat or move his hand, he would be awake and alert in a matter of seconds. She knew this, and although he heard her huff in annoyance, she didn’t fight him. Jason drifted off to sleep as the pilot’s voice came on the radio and the airplane started to move.



No emergency came up and Mara only woke him when she had to use the bathroom. He had grudgingly stood up and led to the way to the back of the plane, staying there until she finished and he could walk her back to her seat. Sealed metal container hurtling through the sky with no way out or not, he wasn’t taking his eyes off her. A glance showed Damian asleep and Talia reading a book he hadn’t seen her pack. Mara simply stared blankly into space. He didn’t expect her to sleep, what with the adrenaline Talia had used to wake her up, so he reached into his duffle and pulled out a puzzle book he had picked up a few airports ago. He offered it to her and smiled slightly when she took it. He settled his hand back on her leg and drifted off again. The second time he was awakened, he felt fully refreshed, though he was still annoyed by the lights turning on and the annoyingly cheerful voice of the captain, informing them all that they would be landing in a few minutes. He glanced at the window closest him, but it was closed. He frowned as he abruptly realized he had no idea where they were. In all the chaos he hadn’t had a chance to ask Talia and he grimaced as he realized he had failed to notice the sign in the airport.


Cursing himself silently for the lapse in attention to something so major, Jason leaned over to Talia and murmured, “Where are we?”


The woman looked at him calculatingly. His hackles rose as she paused for a few seconds before finally answering with a single word.


“Gotham.”

Chapter Text

Running. That’s all he ever seemed to do anymore. Run from the police, run from the gangs, run from the memories. Jason raced down yet another dark alley, his breathing harsh and irregular. A stitch was forming in his side and he shot a fearful glance over his shoulder. Nothing there. He knew better than to stop though, and he was soon proven right when the sound reached him. It wasn’t quickly moving feet. Somehow, the light skipping was more terrifying. The other noise was quiet at first. A small chuckle. His breathing hitched in utter panic. The chuckle turned into a giggle, and then to a laugh. The laugh got louder and higher pitched until it seemed to bounce all around the alley. Jason dove around a corner and kept running. He couldn’t tell where the laugh was coming from anymore. He didn’t know where he was anymore.

A shiny black car loomed out of the darkness before him. Jason dove and slid underneath it, the skin on his arms tearing away. He cowered under the car, shivering as the skipping steps grew closer, prowling around the car. His arms were wrapped tightly around himself but he was still so cold. The laughter abruptly cut off and Jason didn’t think anything could be worse than that sound but this silence proved him wrong. He stifled his breathing as much as he could, not wanting to give himself away.

A new sound suddenly broke the silence. Heavy footsteps, the swish of cloth. A sound so ingrained with safety, with home, that Jason almost crawled out from under the car. But something held him back. Traitor, he thought, but he didn’t know where the thought came from. Left me. Replaced me. Doesn’t love me.

Tears were streaming down his face now. He didn’t know why. He didn’t know why he was under the car, he didn’t know why the laughing scared him so much, he didn’t know why the thoughts felt so horribly right when they were clearly so wrong. Something grabbed his foot. Jason almost screamed, but something was choking his throat. Something wet and cold. He thrashed around but the armored grip on his ankle hauled him out of his hiding place. He stared up into the white eyes of a cowl and felt relief and terror warring within him. A second face joined the first and terror won out. Jason choked again on the stuff -- whatwasitwhycouldn’thegetridofithewasdyingohGodhelpplease -- and jerked around more, tears streaming down his face faster. A red grin beamed back at him. Jason clawed at the gauntlet that now moved to his wrist. Don’tletgoofmedon’tpleasestayplease. He couldn’t speak, he could barely breath, the scream building in his throat had nowhere to go and he couldn’t take it.

The gauntlet pulled away and the dark figure straightened up and nodded at the pale, bleached face with the terrible smile. No words were spoken but the red smile grew wider and the laughing started again and fear was the only thing forcing its way past the something in his lungs. Jason lunged for the cloaked figure but the laughing man grabbed him from behind and pulled him close. Jason struggled and thrashed but he couldn’t get away. He was trapped and the black car roared to life and drove off without the driver taking a second look and he cried harder than he had ever cried before, harder than when his mom died, harder than when he got beaten on the streets. The laughing continued and a hand stroked his hair and Jason needed to get away, he needed the man to stoptouchingstoplaughingstopholdingletgoletgoletGO!

The man abruptly scooped him up and carried him away. Jason couldn’t do anything and that was the worst part. The laughing had died down to giggles but he could hear it still ringing in his head and he would do anything to make it stop. The man finally stopped and Jason didn’t get a chance to look around before he was placed almost tenderly into something hard. He tried to move but it was tootighttoosmallwhatwasthis?? He tried to get up but before he could so much as twitch the red smile had appeared over him again and the giggles were still going and he was holding something long and wooden and oddly shaped and Jason didn’t understand anything all he knew was that suddenly pain was roaring through every inch of him as he sobbed. The giggles grew higher in pitch and a hand gently stroked his face and Jason almost threw up. The bleached man held up the wood thing and suddenly Jason knew, he knew exactly what it was. He screamed and tried to move but something was holding him still and the giggles turned to laughs and the wooden lid came down, down, down and he couldn’t see and he still couldn’t breath and he pounded on the lid but all he could hear was the laughinglaughinglaughingalwayslaughingshutupshutupSHUTUP!

With a loud, shuddering gasp that bordered on a scream, Jason shot upright in his bed, sweat-drenched locks swinging past his face. His wild eyes shot around the room and his hands trembled with a mixture of fear and adrenaline as he ran them through his hair. The nineteen-year-old curled over once he realized where he was, trying to regulate his breathing. It didn’t work. Jason shot out of bed, needing to move, to hit something, to scream, anything to get the adrenaline pounding through his system out. Anything to silence the whispers that sounded more like screams right about then.

The teenager staggered over to the window. He pushed it open and stuck his head out. The fresh air didn’t do any good, the familiar stench of Gotham only serving to send him further back into his memories. Jason’s whole body was still shaking and he jerked his head back and slammed the window shut. He strode to the door of the room, trying to remain quiet as he belatedly remembered that Mara was in the same room. He glanced at her bed but it seemed like she was still sleeping. The boy hurried through the small kitchen and jerkily opened the door, snatching his jacket -- which Talia had bought at the airport -- as he went. After a moment of considering the elevator, Jason decided to take the stairs. He didn’t want to be closed in. Not tonight.

The night air was cool on his face as he stepped outside of the building. He looked around, his hands still quivering slightly. He needed something to punch. Maybe a mugger or a rapist or- no. No, he couldn’t. He couldn’t attract the Bat’s attention. That would be a disaster of monumental proportions. They were only supposed to be in Gotham for a short time, until things calmed down with the chase, but attracting the Bat’s attention would mess everything up so badly it wasn’t remotely funny. Not to mention he didn’t want anyone in Gotham to know he was alive, even if their safely wasn't at stake.

Jason walked aimlessly down the street, silently hoping that someone would be stupid enough to attack him. His restful sleep on the plane had been three days ago and he had barely slept since. His exhaustion was making it harder for him to fight off the madness that he had struggled to control for so long. Maybe it would have better, he mused briefly, if he had followed his original plan to force Bruce to decide once and for all what really mattered. He shook off the thought. He didn’t care about Bruce anymore. He had a new family. A better one. He walked into the little corner store without even thinking about it, glancing at the cashier in an automatic threat assessment. Older, stooped, tired-looking. No danger. Jason wandered around a bit before grabbing a few candy bars. Damian and Mara had never had any of them and while they would probably turn their noses up, he was pretty sure they’d actually enjoy them. Maybe his pointless wandering wasn’t so pointless after all. At least, that’s what he told himself.

Jason placed the candy on the counter and grabbed his wallet. He could easily walk out with the stuff, but, again, trying to avoid attention. His gaze locked onto the cigarettes. He hadn’t had one in years; Bruce had insisted he quit and the League didn't hold with anything that could compromise the health of their agents. Except, you know, fighting with deadly weapons every day. He hadn’t noticed missing them all that much, after the withdrawals passed, but now…. His fingers twitched and before he knew it he was finding an out-of-the-way spot and lighting up. The smoke burned his lungs in a way that was almost soothing, and as he exhaled he was drawn into another memory, one that -- for once -- didn’t make him feel like killing something or screaming.

Jason sat next to Bennet -- his favorite gargoyle -- and sucked in the smoke from his cig. He exhaled with a sigh and looked down at the glowing object, twiddling it in his fingers. “You know, he’s gonna show up any minute,” he said. “So I should probably get rid of this before he sees me and starts lecturing.” Predictably, Bennet didn’t answer. Jason took one last drag and stubbed the cigarette out on the stone parapet. He stared up at the sky, the stars covered with clouds as usual. The swish of a cape alerted him to the other’s presence. He didn’t bother looking.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” Batman said. Jason snorted softly. The man ignored him. “You are too compromised right now. You can’t patrol.”

The boy finally turned to glare at the dark figure next to him. “I am not!”

Batman raised an eyebrow. Jason hunched over and wrapped his arms around his knees. “I’m fine,” he muttered.

“Really,” Batman said without any inflection.

“Yes, really.”

Batman hummed skeptically and Jason was suddenly scooped up in strong arms. He struggled half-heartedly but soon gave in, leaning slightly against the kevlar-plated chest. “I’m fine,” he repeated, his voice wavering slightly. The man’s heartbeat was soothing, and Jason listened listlessly to it as the vigilante carried him to the car. Batman didn’t speak until Jason was settled in the passenger seat and he was about to drive off.

“It’s alright to not be fine, Jason,” he said softly. Jason sniffed and stared out the window. There was a moment of silence before Batman -- or was it Bruce now? -- said, “I’ve told you, it’s not wrong to take a night off every now and then.”

“...yeah. Ok,” Jason whispered. A long pause and then, “Can we go visit my mom tomorrow?”

He smiled and, oh yeah, it was Bruce now. “Of course, Jay-lad.”

Jason shook himself abruptly and tossed the cigarette on the ground. He strode off into the darkness, this time with a purpose.


It was a few hours later when Jason returned to the apartment building, his knees muddied and his jacket smelling strongly of nicotine and smoke. The teenager dragged himself up the stairs and fumbled in his jacket for the room key. He muttered a curse when he couldn’t find it and started patting down his cargo pants. He was just fighting the urge to hit the door in frustration when it swung open.

Jason’s relief was quickly tempered by the absolutely furious expression on Talia’s face. “Um…” was all he got out before her hand was latching onto his ear and he was bodily dragged into the room. “What the fuck!?” he hissed when she released him, rubbing at his ear.

“Where were you?!” Talia snapped, her voice cracking like a whip.

“Out,” Jason growled, definitely not in the mood for this.

Evidently, she wasn’t either, because the teenager abruptly found himself pinned on the floor with her hand dangerously close to his throat. “Out for hours?” she hissed. “Out in the middle of the night in Gotham for hours?”

If it had been any other night, he would have recognized the concern in her voice for what it was. As it was, he was tired, irritable, and emotionally wrung out. He bucked underneath her, managing to grab her wrist and flip her off of him. She landed lightly on her feet and was back on him in a second. A few moments of tussling and one lightning-fast nerve strike later, Jason was lying limply on the floor, snarling impotently.

“Where. Were. You?” The woman’s voice was deadly soft.

Jason snarled at her and opened his mouth, but before he could say the cutting words on the tip of his tongue he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. Damian and Mara were standing at the door to one of the bedrooms, staring at them with wide eyes. They were scared, he realized. The thought instantly made his anger disappear. He flopped his head back onto the floor and stared up at Talia.

“I was visiting my mom,” he said.

Several emotions flashed across Talia’s face before she settled on her usual blank mask. “I see,” she said. Another quick strike and Jason could move again. He pushed himself up onto his elbows and glanced over at the doorway. It was empty. He slowly stood up and rubbed at his rather sore neck. He glanced over at Talia, a bit sheepishly. Now that he was thinking clearly, he could understand her reaction. She regarded him impassively. After a moment she surprised him by breaking the silence. “I will not apologize for being concerned for my son,” she said, her voice hard. Jason knew her well enough to read between the lines: ‘but I am sorry for hurting you’.

He sighed and sat down on the couch. “Well, I will apologize for worrying you.”

Talia sat down gracefully beside him. “You had an episode?” she asked, staring straight ahead.

“Nightmare,” Jason corrected. He rubbed his forehead. “Almost sent me into one, though.”

The silence was more comfortable this time. This, at least, was familiar territory.

“You are overwhelmed? Being here?” An outsider would have thought this was merely an employer asking about the competency of her staff. Jason, however, had spent a lot of time around the woman -- even if his memories of his time comatose were...sketchy, to say the least -- and he could understand the true sentiment behind the words. He pondered what to say for a moment before deciding on the truth.

“I can manage for now. But being back here is...not helping anything.”

“We could leave.”

But Jason caught the slightest pause before she spoke and knew how much leaving now could complicate things. He was honestly surprised she would suggest it at all. But then again, she had left the League, and her father, for him and Damian. It was all very strange and Jason wasn’t sure how to feel about it. He sighed and slid down on the couch. “Nah, we should follow the plan.” He looked up at her. “Why were you so worried, anyway? Normally you don’t mind when I disappear for a few hours.”

“It is merely Gotham. Being in the city where you...lived...does not give me confidence in your safety, nor your mental state.”

“Geez, thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Talia exhaled just a little harder than normal and if Jason didn’t think she’d castrate him for it, he would have laughed. As it was, he flashed a grin and leaned forward for the remote. “Come on, brats, we’re gonna watch a movie,” he called.

Damian came trotting in and Mara followed slower. Jason lifted one arm and the boy snuggled up to his side. Jason smiled quickly down at his brother. Ever since he’d been flogged, Damian had been slightly more touchy; he was no octopus by any reckoning, but he didn’t avoid hugs as much and sometimes -- rarely but more often than before -- initiated the contact. He glanced up and gestured with his chin for Mara to join them. The girl carefully inched forward but chose to sit on the floor instead of on the couch. Jason shrugged and turned on the tv. At least she was in the room and within five feet.

By the time the credits rolled, the sound of steady, even breathing filled the room. Talia glanced at her boys and smiled softly -- it was safe to do so, they were all asleep. Sometime during the movie Jason had drifted off, his head resting on her shoulder. Damian was still tucked under his brother’s arm, his black locks partly obscuring his closed eyes. Her gaze moved automatically to the room’s other occupant and she only avoided stiffening by remembering that such action would wake Jason. The sun, peeking through mist, towering skyscrapers, and curtain, glinted off of Mara’s hair clip -- the one she knew for a fact doubled as a weapon when necessary. Talia frowned slightly. She did not understand Jason’s obsession with the girl. What had she ever done for him? He had only known her properly for a few weeks! Even now the girl’s head was rested ever-so-lightly on her son’s knee, and she had to fight the urge to push her away, to cry that she was unworthy to touch the son of Talia al Ghul. But that would upset Jason, and he needed nothing more to be upset about.

The woman heaved a silent sigh. She had given up her father, her connections, her home, and likely her reputation for her sons. She supposed she could give up her negative feelings towards the girl as well. At least outwardly. Mentally giving a decisive nod -- Jason was such a light sleeper -- she leaned back on the couch, tilting her head until her cheek rested on Jason’s head. Her eyelids fluttered shut and through her exhaustion -- a combination of both lack of sleep and stress -- she noted that she was...happy. The thought only surprised her for a moment as she leaned further into Jason’s warm form. Though the room was barren of fine drapes, servants, or expensive knick-knacks, it felt more...something...than the vaunted halls she had lived in previously. She could make a life like this, she suddenly realized. Of course, that had been the idea all along. But...she would be lying if she said she truly believed it would work. They were all too...different for a normal life. But...maybe...a combination of the two….

She could just picture it: Jason coming home from a job -- anything from a mercenary to a librarian, she didn’t care --, Damian sitting beside her and reading the classics in their original languages...Mara...doing something similar, she supposed, if she had to be there, and her, basking in her children’s presence, exploring foreign cities with them, going out for her own jobs occasionally, to keep it interesting. Yes, she could see that. She could see that very clearly. And as Talia drifted off to sleep, something that she had not fully possessed for years and years alighted in her breast, burning and crowing a challenge to the world. For as long as her sons were beside her, hope, like the phoenix, could never truly die.

Chapter Text

The wind whistled past his head, the chill foretelling the coming winter. Jason growled to himself as he scanned the streets. Mara had run away again . This time, she had somehow managed to slip both his and Talia’s attention. He wasn’t entirely sure what had prompted Talia to be a tiny bit nicer to the girl, but he wasn’t about to complain. But even with the woman being more attentive, Mara had escaped. He hated thinking about it like that, he didn’t want to imprison her. But...the truth of the matter was she wasn’t thinking clearly, or at least not in regards to her own safety. And now she had slipped the three trackers he had planted on her. Jason ran and leapt to another rooftop, rolling to minimize the impact. He would have to be careful about how much time he spent up here. This was the realm of Bats. And that was a realm he had no business being in any longer. At least not in Gotham.

Jason shook himself violently. “Focus, Todd,” he muttered to himself. “This is your turf. She can’t hide forever.”

Unfortunately this wasn’t entirely true. Sure, he had most of the street plan memorized, but lots of old buildings were gone, replaced by towers of glass and steel. He had hoped it wouldn’t be like that in the East End, but here they were. He had been told, seen reports, about the Cataclysm, No Man’s Land, the rebuilding helped out by Luther of all people. It just...hadn’t seemed very real, while he was off in the Himalayas and traveling around the world. It was jarring, now, seeing familiarity side by side with alien structures. He almost leapt into the side of a suddenly taller, less crumbling building when he started moving purely through instinct, letting his eyes scan the streets. Jason cursed angrily, spinning around, his eyes searching desperately. Where was she?? At least in the other cities all he had to worry about was her getting attacked by the League -- she could easily handle anything else, he was sure -- but this was Gotham . Supervillain attack was a distinct possibility. A probability, in fact! Not to mention the Bats .

Ducra would probably tell him to calm down and meditate, ‘expand his senses’ or some shit. Easy for her to say, up in her remote mountain home. Gotham was never even the slightest bit quiet. If he expanded anything he’d probably go deaf. Or wish that he had.

Jason cursed again and pulled a pair of small, heat-sensing, night-vision binoculars out of his jacket. He had been trying to avoid using any tech, in the off chance someone -- mainly Ra’s or Oracle -- noticed. The binoculars weren’t connected to the internet, so they were by far the safest choice, but they weren’t exactly discrete. If a Bat did come across him, he’d have a hard time posing as a civilian while holding military-grade gear.

With his upgrade, the teenager had a bit more luck. There were two rapidly-moving heat signatures several blocks away. One of them was much smaller than the other and was moving considerably slower. Cursing quietly to himself -- he would have been yelling if he weren’t trying for stealth -- Jason raced over the rooftops towards the orangey blobs.

Gravel crunched under his boots and a particularly strong gust of wind caught him mid-air, almost sending him plummeting. He caught the ledge of the building, though, and hauled himself back up. He could hear the clash of blades now and his cursing moved to a new level of creativity. Blades? Really?? They couldn’t have used a more discreet weapon? Or a less dangerous one?

Jason’s hand crept to the his throwing knifes and he quietly pulled one out as he peered around the corner of a rooftop entrance. His stomach dropped down to his shoes. There was blood. A lot of blood. Jason swallowed reflexively. It wasn’t the blood itself that alarmed him; he had been steeped in the stuff -- his own and other’s -- too much for it to have any effect. It was who the blood belonged to. Now that he could see her as more than a blob, it was clear that Mara was barely holding up. She blocked the assassin’s sword with weak swings of her knife. Jason frowned and glanced around the rooftop. Mara knew better than to fight a swordsman with only one knife. A gleam of light glancing off metal showed him where the girl had lost her other weapon.

A pained gasp brought his head cracking back around to the fight. Mara was on the ground, a massive slice across her right arm -- which must have been why she dropped the knife --, bruising and blood staining her face, and curled up in a way that indicated an abdominal injury. The assassin stood over her, sword raised for the killing stroke. Jason’s thoughts were abruptly overtaken by a single cry of ‘KILL!’ and he stepped out of hiding, his arm arching back and then snapping forward with deadly precision. The assassin turned to face him just in time to get a knife to the stomach. The dark-clad figure staggered backwards a step, towards the edge of the building. Jason strode forwards, his boots clumping loudly as he didn’t try to mask his angry steps.

“Oh no you don’t,” he growled, grabbing the front of the assassin’s clothes and hauling them back. “You don’t get out that easily.” A few quick, brutal hits and the assassin was down for the count. “We’re going to have some fun first.” Jason took vicious pleasure in stepping on a few extremities as he rapidly tied up Mara’s attacker and spent a precious minute swinging down to dump them in one of the rooms of the mostly abandoned building. His arm ached a bit from the grapple’s kickback as he jerked roughly back onto the roof, running almost before his feet hit the concrete to where Mara still lay slumped, stripping off his gloves as he went.

“Hey there, kiddo,” he said soothingly, rolling her onto her back and pushing her hands away from her stomach. “I just gotta see what’s goin’ on he-” he stopped. Took a deep breath. Firmly pushed down the urge to curse or scream or do anything that would upset the girl. “Mara?” He waited until she blinked at him hazily. “I’m going to have to move you, ok?” She stared at him for a long moment before she finally nodded slightly. “Ok. I’m gonna need you to hold this”, he pulled out a long piece of gauze from his belt and shoved it into the deep hole in Mara’s gut that was currently pouring blood over both of them, “right there, ok? Put pressure on it. Can you do that?” Mara’s hands were cold and shaking as they fumbled across his to press down on the gauze. “Good job, Mara. I’m going to pick you up now, ok?”

Jason pulled his gloves back on and slid his arms under her, gingerly lifting her up. The girl whimpered quietly. “I know, I’m sorry. We’re gonna get you fixed right up, ok?”

Now Jason was glad that Mara had led him across half the city. It meant they were only a few streets away from the only person he could trust to patch Mara up without calling the police or alerting the Bats. Mara made a strangled noise as he slid down a fire escape, her breath coming fast. “You’re doing so good, Mara. Just hold on a bit longer,” Jason said as he ran through the streets as fast as he could without jarring Mara terribly. She still mewled in pain and he muttered meaningless words of comfort in a mish mash of different languages as he hunted for the correct street.

The damage from the Cataclysm was worse here, with old buildings either gone entirely -- sometimes replaced, oftentimes not -- or looking spectacularly rickety. Several had scaffolding surrounding them, but any construction had been abandoned. Typical. It didn’t throw off his knowledge of the area enough to hinder his search -- though he vowed to come back and relearn it -- and he soon skidded into Crime Alley. Several druggies lay against the walls, but he ignored them with years of practice and kept running. A few guys looked like they were thinking about stopping him, but one glance at the girl in his arms and they backed off. Jason smirked just a tiny bit. Good to know the Doc’s reputation still held. No one dared attack the clinic, or anyone who was obviously on their way there. Jason didn’t know what was true, but lots of stories went around about people who broke that rule. Whether it was interference from the Bats or the Doc herself, they were solid deterrents.

Jason shouldered his way into the clinic. Even now, in the earliest hours of the morning, there were a few people in the room. Two men, one who had blood coming from his shoulder; a woman who stared at the floor, her hair blocking her face; and three teenagers who alternated between glaring at everyone and glancing towards the treatment rooms. They all looked up when Jason burst in.

“SHIT!” one guy shouted when he noticed the blood that was dripping onto the floor.

Jason looked around wildly. “Where’s the Doc?” he panted.

“She’s back there with my brother,” one of the teens said nervously, his face pale.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“He broke his arm. The bone was through the skin,” the boy said.

Jason grunted acknowledgment. Safe to interrupt then. He marched towards the door to the treatment rooms and bellowed, “DOC! DOC THOMPKINS!” There was a moment of silence as everyone stared at him in shock. No one yelled at Doc Thompkins. Jason snarled furiously. “LESLIE THOMPKINS!” he shouted again.

He was about to tear open the door and go find the woman himself when it suddenly flew open. “Young man ,” a sharp voice began. It cut off abruptly as the woman behind the voice blinked at his face, looking thunderstruck. Jason did not have time for that and cleared his throat pointedly, lifting Mara up the tiniest bit. Leslie took in the limp figure in his arms and the blood dripping onto the tile floor and was instantly moving. “Get in here!” she said, quickly leading the way to a treatment room. Jason was happy to comply.

Within a minute Mara was placed on a gurney and Doc Thompkins was trying to cut through her reinforced clothes -- because of course Mara had to wear full League attire when she left this time, why the fuck not -- with little luck.

“Move,” Jason snapped, pulling out his knife and slicing open the cloth with a few deft strokes. Leslie swooped back in, probing the wound and muttering under her breath, though she did shoot Jason a look of mixed annoyance and suspicion.

“What caused the wound?” she demanded.

Jason stiffened. “Why does it matter?” he asked through gritted teeth.

The woman glared at him. “This looks too deep to be from a normal knife,” she said coldly.

“Can you help her?” Jason asked, matching her tone.

Leslie huffed in annoyance and went back to cleaning the wound. “Of course I can. I would be easier , though, if I knew what I was dealing with.” Jason remained silent. Leslie resumed muttering under her breath as she examined the girl. She stood up abruptly and said, “What do you know about surgery?”

“Enough to get by,” he answered shortly. “What do you need me to do?”

“Something’s been nicked,” the doctor said. “I believe that’s all it is but it still needs to be fixed. I’m going to have to go in.”

Jason cursed angrily and went to wash his hands and strip out of his leather jacket, which was now thoroughly ruined. Leslie handed him a pair of gloves and they got to work.


Damian snatched up the phone the instant it rang. “Hello?” he asked, for once not worrying about sounding aloof.

“Hey, Damian.” Jason sounded tired.

“Jason! Are you well? Did you locate Mara?”

“Yeah, I got her. One of the League found her first though.”

Damian’s heart stuttered and he wondered for an instant when Mara had become more than just an obstacle to his inheritance. “I- is she well?”

Jason snorted. “I wouldn’t say ‘well’, but she’ll live. Where’s Talia?”

“She is here. One moment.” Damian jumped off the couch and ran to the room he and his mother shared. “Mother! Jason called!”

Talia shot up from her laptop -- where she had been scrubbing security footage -- and reached him in two long strides. She grabbed the phone and put it to her ear. “Jason? What happened?”

Damian bounced nervously on the balls of his feet before he realized what he was doing. Forcing his body to be still, he watched anxiously as his mother’s face went through several emotions before settling on fury. “And her attacker?” Whatever Jason said did not make her happy, but she sighed and said, “Very well. We will come to retrieve you.” She hung up and turned towards him. Damian tried very hard to look calm.

“Mother?”

“Jason and Mara are at a clinic. Mara’s injuries were too extensive to be treated by us. Come, we must go to them.”

“Did Jason outline her injuries?” Damian asked, trotting to keep up with his mother’s steps.

“Several broken ribs, a long slice on her right arm, minor head trauma, and a stab to the abdomen. Her small intestine was punctured but Jason assisted the doctor in repairing the damage. She suffered severe blood loss.”

Damian felt slightly sick as he climbed into the rented car. He had seen injuries of this kind before, as well as ones far worse, but for some reason the thought of Mara laying on the ground somewhere, her life blood pulsing away, was affecting him more than he expected.

The boy watched their surrounds deteriorate as the car moved further into the East End and his lip curled in disgust. “ This is where Jason was raised?”

Talia glanced at him. “Yes, and you would do well not to scorn it. It is a horrible place but it holds a special place in your brother’s life.” She caught herself before she could add ‘and heart’. It would not do to use such...emotional language, especially not in front of her impressionable son.

“That seems foolish,” Damian said, his brow furrowing.

“Perhaps. But it is Jason.”

Damian nodded once in agreement. His older brother had the strange tendency to show people whatever he was feeling without regards for the damage it could do to his reputation. Damian didn’t understand it, but his mother had explained that it was a result of Jason’s upbringing, so he could not blame him for it.

The car parked at the edge of a narrow alley. Damian moved to unbuckle but Talia stopped him. “Remain in the car, Damian,” she said. “I will be back shortly.” She marched off into the darkness, locking the doors behind her. Damian sat silent and still in the backseat of the car. Shadows moved outside the windows and the boy gripped his favorite knife tightly. Let one of these vagrants try something and they would lose more than their dignity.

Damian would deny jumping when the door abruptly opened to his dying day. Luckily for Jason, he realized who was there in time to avoid burying his knife in the young man’s eye socket.

“Damian,” Jason greeted with a grunt, leaning into the car to carefully lay Mara’s slack body down across the seat. “Hold her head in your lap, it’s the only way she’ll fit. Make sure you don’t jostle her too much.” With that statement he pulled away and closed the door, appearing a moment later in the passenger seat. Talia climbed in as well, though Damian was almost too busy studying Mara to notice. The girl was incredibly pale and, when he put two fingers to her neck, her pulse was beating like a scared rabbit. Damian held the girl as still as he could the whole trip back to the apartment, where Jason scooped her up again and carefully deposited her on her bed. Damian sat on the edge of Jason’s bed while the two adults talked in lowered tones just outside the door, his back straight and his hands folded in his lap. No one would harm his cousin further while he was there.

After a moment of what sounded like quiet arguing, Talia entered the room alone. Damian looked up at her. “Where is Jason?” he asked quietly.

Talia sighed a tiny bit. “He has gone to deal with her attacker.”


In the two hours since Jason had left, the assassin had woken up and managed to inch their way towards the broken window. Jason wasn’t entirely sure what they hoped to accomplish over there, though suicide-after-failure wasn’t exactly uncommon in the League. If you caught Ra’s in one of his worse moods it was either that or be murdered in horrible and ironic ways. What they hadn’t managed to do, Jason was pleased to see, was slip any of their bonds. People could say what they would about him, but he was damn good at his job.

“Ok, this is just rude,” he said, swaggering up to the wiggling person. “I mean, here I am, giving you shelter from the elements, a roof above your head, and you’re just spurning my hospitality! Inconsiderate.” He stepped casually on the assassin’s ankle, crushing it with an ugly crunching sound. The assassin didn’t make a sound, which Jason expected but was still mildly disappointed by. He rolled his foot around a bit on the crushed limb as he stepped closer to the person’s head. “Listen, I’m not totally unreasonable. I get it, you’re just doin’ your job.” He crouched down by their covered face and said, “But ya see, I’m just doin’ my job too. And my job is to protect two little kids. And, well,” he rolled one of his smaller knives across his knuckles like it was a coin, knowing it unnerved people. “You’re makin’ that rather difficult.”

Jason paused for a moment, head cocked to one side. “No answer?” The assassin didn’t move. Jason hummed carelessly. “I think it’s about time I see who’s under that mask, huh?” A quick slash with the knife and the cloth fell away, speckled with blood -- Jason hadn’t exactly been careful with the blade. A woman glared up at him. Jason narrowed his eyes in thought. “...nope,” he said finally. “Never seen you before.” Which wasn’t surprising either. The League was huge. But he did know all the members capable enough to take him or Talia out. “What’s Ra’s doin’, sending rank amateurs? I’m offended.” Jason rocked back on his heels. “What’d you do to get this job, anyway?”

The woman did not respond, merely glaring silently at him.

Jason raised an eyebrow. “I know the League’s anti-torture tactics just as well as you, lady. Better, actually. You’re gonna ignore all my questions while focusing on all the good you’re doing the League by not talking. But I’ve got news for you.” Quick as a snake, Jason’s larger knife was in his free hand and stabbing deep into the assassin’s thigh. Jason leaned in closer to the woman’s face -- which had paled from the pain, though her expression remained stoic -- and said quietly, as he slowly twisted the knife, “I don’t want any information. There’s nothing to be brave about.” Her eyes widened just the slightest bit and Jason grinned ferally at the hint of fear. Boiling green liquid bubbled through his veins, washing away the last of the cold fear that had gripped him while Mara was hurt. The woman’s dark eyes reflected his own, glowing green ones. Normally that would be enough to make him jerk away, but tonight he didn’t care what he looked like.

Jason jerked the knife roughly from the assassin’s leg and blood began spurting from the woud. “Ooh, looks like I hit the femoral artery. Shame. That means you only have a few minutes.” He grinned brightly. “‘s ok. I work fast.”


Jason finished cleaning off his last knife and glanced down at the broken, bleeding body on the floor. “Hey.” He kicked lightly at the woman’s foot. She was beyond noise, but her mangled fingers twitched in response. “Nothin’ personal, right? Just two people, doin’ their jobs.” Predictably, she didn’t reply. Jason ignored her silence and continued, reaching into his belt. “Now, normally I’d make an example of you. Leave you somewhere conspicuous to make sure Ra’s gets the message to fuck off. But I’ve been ordered to be discrete, so. Change of plans.” He crouched down by her head, holding up a small grey pellet, about the size of a quarter. “I’m sure you know what this is.”

Evidently she did, as her one eye that wasn’t swollen shut widened and she began trying to move. Jason ignored her struggles, examining the pellet as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. “Handy little things, these are. Target and destroy all biological material in a twenty-foot radius via specially-crafted acid. Can’t have any evidence being left, after all.” He leaned forward and very carefully placed the pellet into the deep stab wound he had put in her thigh. “Don’t want that falling out,” he said conspiratorially. He put another one by the window, just to be safe, and surveyed the room, hands on his hips. “Right, well, I’d say see you later but,” he chuckled darkly, “I don’t see that happening. Toodles.”

He leapt out the window, firing his grapple gun and swinging up to the roof. Talia would probably make him scrub tonight’s footage himself, but it was worth it. Three pellets were quickly discarded up here -- no one could be allowed to get ahold of Mara’s DNA -- and Jason began making his way back to the apartment, activating the pellets with the push of a button. A wolfish grin grew on his face as the assassin -- he never had gotten her name -- quickly found her voice again.


Tim rubbed his face tiredly, staring with squinted eyes at the huge monitor as he finished typing his report. There wasn’t much. Person in the Bowery had reported screaming ‘like I never heard an’ I lived here goin’ on sixty years!’ The cops had gone and investigated and found nothing. Robin had gone and found nothing either. Not even Oracle could find anything!

Tim sighed and pushed his chair back, logging off the computer. He’d already finished his maximum daily amount of coffee -- only four cups, ridiculous -- and he had school in the morning. Like it or not, he needed sleep. Hopefully something would come to him in the morning. The Batmobile came roaring into the cave as he stripped off his uniform. Batman jumped out and marched over to the main computer, removing his cowl and becoming Bruce again.

“Tim,” he said, typing rapidly.

“Bruce,” Tim replied, the word turning into a yawn halfway through.

Bruce glanced up at him and Tim’s heart leapt at the thought he was going to say something, but the man’s face remained neutral and he merely looked at him for a long moment before saying, “Get some rest.”

Tim tried to stop his shoulders from slumping but he wasn’t sure he managed completely. “Right. Goodnight.” He headed up the stairs.

“And Tim,” Bruce abruptly said, surprising the boy. He turned to look down at his mentor. The man gave him a tiny smile, more a twitch of the mouth than anything, and said, “Good work tonight.”

Tim flushed and looked down, trying to hide his grin. “I didn’t find anything,” he mumbled.

“Regardless, you carried out the investigation very well.”

Tim’s grin grew slightly and he ducked his head further.

Bruce turned back to the computer. “Get some rest,” he repeated.

Tim’s grin didn’t leave his face once as he made his way up to his bed.

Chapter Text

Jason sighed loudly as he watched Damian and Mara work their way through yet another kata. They had been at it for several hours, moving slowly so that Mara didn’t make any of her newly-healed injuries worse, but faster than they had been the last two weeks -- even with the elevated healing that all Al Guls seemed to have, stomach wounds and surgery took time to repair. The young man glanced at Talia, who was sitting at the small table with the laptop, pursing her lips at the screen. He sighed loudly again. The woman didn’t so much as blink. Jason flopped his head onto the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. A few minutes ticked by, the only sound the clicking of computer keys and the quiet kiais from the two eight-year-olds.

Jason couldn’t take it anymore. He abruptly jumped off the couch -- startling the two kids into into stillness -- and marched over to the kitchen table. “Talia,” he said. The woman hummed in response, her fingers still flying over the keys. “I’m bored.”

“Surely you do not require assistance finding a way to occupy yourself?” she asked, her eyes never leaving the screen.

Jason flopped down into the chair next to her. “I have to get out of this room , Talia. They ”, he swung an arm in the direction of Damian and Mara, “need to get out of this room. We’re going mad.” As he had predicted, Talia had been royally pissed with his ‘antics’ -- which had forced her to alter the plan and push the timeline back by a good deal -- and had not only made him hunt down and scrub any video footage, but had also confined every single one of them to the apartment indefinitely. Jason hoped that two weeks had been enough for her.

“They have not complained.” Well...she hadn’t completely shut him down right away. So there was hope!

“That’s because they’re brainwashed little monkeys.”

Damian scoffed. Jason ignored him. “Let’s go do something. As a family!”

Jason half-expected some scathing remark about Mara having to stay home or something, but none came. Talia merely said, “And what, pray tell, would you suggest?” Yes!

“I dunno, something we can all do and enjoy!”

“Mayhap you have forgotten, Jason, that we are trying to avoid attention?” she asked, meeting his eyes coolly.

Jason winced slightly. Ok, not totally over it. “It doesn’t have to be something assassin-y! Let’s go to a park, or a library, or,” his face suddenly lit up, “an amusement park!”

Talia’s brow furrowed the slightest bit in confusion. “An amusement park,” she repeated.

Jason nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah! There’s one here. I never got to go before it shut down and I’ll bet Mara and Damian love it! They reopened it a few months ago with all new rides and everything!”

Talia still looked doubtful. “I do not think-”

“Come on , Tals! It’ll be fun!”

Talia eyed her eldest son’s face. She sighed slightly and turned to look at the younger. “And you, Damian? What do you say?”

The boy shifted slightly. “It would be...nice to see something other than the apartment. If Jason believes it would be enjoyable, I would not be opposed.”

Talia was about to turn back to Jason, but she remembered the resolution she had made -- it was hard, sometimes, though the enforced proximity had led her to acknowledge that the girl was...not entirely intolerable. Pursing her lips, she looked at Mara. “And you?”

The girl looked startled, like she always did when Talia included her. Jason had a tiny proud smile on his face that absolutely did not make Talia’s heart thump. “I-” She straightened her spine -- Jason would be pleased to see didn’t seem to cause her any pain -- and said politely, “If you are willing, I would be most pleased to accompany you.”

Talia deliberated for a long moment. They had all been getting cabin fever, and if she was honest she was as well. But...the danger...Jason may not have been aware of it but she certainly was. She glanced around the room and saw them all looking at her hopefully. She sighed audibly this time and Jason’s face transformed into a grin. She didn’t know if it was because of her showing her exasperation or because he knew she was about to cave. Either way, it was annoying. She narrowed her eyes at him. He just grinned wider. Talia looked up to the heavens. “Very well ,” she said. One day. They would be fine.

And no, she did not sound huffy .


“Alright, brats!” Jason said, clapping his hands together. “What should we go on first?”

Damian sniffed scorfully. “I sincerely doubt any of the entertainment here will provide a thrill. Our normal activities are more than-”

“Different kind of thrill, kiddo,” Jason interrupted. He pointed to the left.  “Let’s start on that side and work our way across.”

Talia rolled her eyes behind her large sunglasses, where no one could see. “Do as you will,” she said. “I will remain in this area. Contact me if you have the need.”

“Will do,” Jason replied cheerfully. He grabbed Damian and Mara’s hands and towed them off, ignoring their complaining. “Shut it, brats. We’re going to have fun and I’m not going to lose you.”

It was a shockingly nice day for Gotham and Jason squinted into the sun, saying, “Better keep hydrated.”

“We have been trained to survive in far hotter and drier climates than this,” Damian pointed out.

“Without nourishment or hydration of any kind,” Mara added quietly.

Jason rolled his eyes. “But there is absolutely no need to use that training in this situation.” He tugged Damian out of the path of a teenager with black hair. “Don’t force yourself into potentially dangerous situations when there is no need for it.” He gave Mara a slightly pointed look and she flushed slightly, one hand unconsciously rubbing at her stomach. She hadn’t tried to run since the attack, though to be fair she hadn't been able to move much. Jason hoped that this fact wouldn’t change now that she was physically capable again.

They finally reached the far end of the park and Jason grinned up at the towering metal structures. Screams were heard from far overhead as the cars whizzed around the tracks. “Let’s do this one first,” he said, pulling them into the line. Damian eyed the rollercoaster with distaste but didn’t argue. During the fifteen minutes it took for them to make it to the front of the line, Damian became more and more annoyed.

Akhi, why must we wait in these lines?” he demanded. “Surely Mother did not forbid us from purchasing these…” his face twisted slightly at the name, “‘Flash passes’?”

Jason raised an eyebrow at him. “Not worth it, Dami. Those things are fu-dging expensive.” Jason wrinkled his nose. Talia would kill him if Damian started cursing in another language.

“Too expensive for us?” the boy asked, arching an eyebrow.

Jason sighed. “Technically not. But the wait is like ten minutes, Damian. If it was an hour or two I might cave.”

Damian looked horrified. “You mean some people wait in these lines for hours merely to go on these... rides?”

“Yep.”

Why?!”

“Because its fun! Which you will see...right now!” The young adult nudged his brother and...cousin?...onto the platform and made sure both of them were strapped in. The attendant came by and Jason had to reach out and flick the side of Damian’s head to keep him from snapping at the man. Literally. The kid had sharp teeth and no qualms about using them.

The floor dropped away and their feet were left swinging in the air. Jason grinned at Damian’s face. “What? Haven’t you always wanted to fly? We’ll be just like Superman!” he said teasingly. The look on his brother’s face darkened, which only served to make Jason laugh. The grin stayed on his face for the duration of the ride, interspersed with loud whoops of excitement. Jason was pleased to hear Mara go from stony silence to little gasps of excitement as the ride progressed -- he had been worried the ride might have hurt her ribs or aggravated her newly-healed case of stab-itis. When the floor rose back under their feet and they were on their way to the next ride, Jason nudged the kids. “How’d you like it?”

He was pleasantly surprised when Mara answered first. “It was...enjoyable,” she said quietly, sounding a bit nervous.

Damian sniffed dismissively, but Jason caught the glint of excitement in his eyes. He smiled secretly to himself. Little brats.


It was several hours later when the three of them -- sweaty, tired, and laden with prizes and cotton candy -- joined Talia in the food court. The woman actually lowered her sunglasses a bit to look at them better. Mara had cotton candy in her hair, Jason was carrying at least three giant stuffed animals, and Damian was soaking wet for some reason.

“Well, I certainly hope you enjoyed buying out the park,” she said dryly.

Jason was entirely unabashed. “Yep! Now we’re all going to go on the ferris wheel together before we leave.” The sun was just hitting the horizon and normally he’d stay longer, but Mara had been slowly flagging as the hours went by and he didn’t want to push her.

“Go ahead without me,” the woman said, looking back down at her tablet. Jason’s hand covered the screen and she gave him a look.

“Come on, Tals,” he pleaded. She was abruptly reminded of the tiny fifteen-year-old he had been when he first came into her care. She tried to remain strong but a minute under his begging gaze had her cracking. Jason beamed and led the way to the large structure, the children following like ducklings. Talia’s mouth quirked up in fond exasperation as she picked up her bag and followed. That child would be the death of her.


Now, sitting in a rocking metal cage hundreds of feet above the ground and the screaming, Talia could only hope that they lived long enough for that to be true. But not literally.

Her gaze flicked to Jason. He was sitting ramrod straight, staring straight ahead, a look of pure terror on his face. There was not a single hint of blue in his eyes any more and she knew that, at this moment, it was not safe for them to be here. She reached over slowly and grabbed Damian’s arm in a vice grip, pulling him over to sit beside her. On her other side, Mara was looking down at the flames far below with something akin to fascination.

“Jason,” she said, forcing her voice to be steady and calm. “Look at me, abn <son>.” His green eyes locked onto hers. “There we are,” she said soothingly. An explosion, closer than before. Jason’s head snapped to the side. “'abqi eaynayk ealia, Jason <Keep your eyes on me>.” The teenager slowly dragged his eyes back to Talia. “Good, abnay <my son>. Taqumun bih bishakl jayid <You are doing so well>. We’ve just had a lovely day at the amusement park. Damian got completely soaked, somehow. Damian,” she addressed her second son without looking away from the first, “how did you get so wet?”

She could feel the boy shifting beside her. “We had run out of roller coasters to ride, so Jason suggested we try a raft ride. There were artificial waves that would hit the rafts and spray us with water. Whoever was closest to the wave got the most wet. The boat was meant to turn so everyone was sprayed, but somehow I kept ending up closest.”

“I see. Did Jason try to help or did he just laugh?”

She could hear the scowl as Damian said, “He just laughed.” The boy didn’t sound as upset as he might have, though. Concern colored his words. Mara was shifting uncomfortably beside her.

The loudspeaker set into the benches screeched with static that quickly resolved into loud laughter. “Hello Gotham City!” Jason shuddered. That voice. It was him. He wasn’t ready for this. Why now? Why today of all days? His hand dropped to his favorite knife -- the flame dagger Talia had given him -- and he clutched the handle. The hard surface provided a small bit of comfort. He could vaguely hear Talia talking loudly, trying to drown out the other voice. He knew it was no good. For some reason, the rage wasn’t coming. He would have expected that. He was prepared for that. He could use rage to his advantage, use it to help save himself and others. But this...this all consuming fear was nothing but paralyzing. He could not afford to be paralyzed right now. But his body wouldn’t listen to his brain, not when it was shooting from one thought to the next, all centered around the damn clown and what happened the last time they had met.

Jason forced his eyes to move, to focus, and he was faced with one falsely-calm and two worried faces across from him. “‘m ok,” he grunted, forcing the words through the dirt and mud he kept reminding himself was not real. “‘m fine.” Didn't have much a choice, did he? He had to get that look off Damian and Mara’s faces. He was the big brother -- cousin? --. He was supposed to protect them from everything.

“You are most certainly not fine,” Talia said sharply, keeping a wary eye on the knife in his grasp. “And neither do you have to be.” She glared towards the ground. Let that creature show itself, even for an instant, and she would kill it immediately, Jason’s plans to do it himself be damned. Her son’s safety was more important than him being happy with her. She knew she shouldn’t have allowed this.

“Can we climb down?” Damian asked.

Talia frowned in thought. “If it comes to it, we will. At the moment we are relatively safe up here. As long as we don’t draw attention to ourselves, we might get away with no one noticing us. If not, we will escape by any means necessary.”

Another shudder ran through Jason’s body and his eyes still hadn’t gained any blue, but he was more alert now, at least. That was something, Talia supposed. The Joker’s monologue cut off into shrill laughing and Jason’s face twisted, his hands gripping his legs so hard Talia was expecting blood. He looked up and his eyes locked on hers. He looked at Damian and Mara again and oh. There was the rage. Talia supposed it wasn’t surprising to see it when he went into protective mode. The young man stood up slowly, his weight rocking the car. His face was twisted into such a furious snarl that Talia felt Damian and Mara shrink back. The teenager actually looked like he was about to launch himself out of the ferris wheel. Talia surged forward, grabbing his arm in a tight grip. She didn’t blame him for the vicious backhand that sent her head snapping to the side. He couldn’t control what he did in a Pit Rage. She spit out a bit of blood from her newly split lip and held on.

“Jason!” she snapped. “Not now!”

He snarled, trying to shake her off. She clung to him like a limpet. “Jason!” Her voice turned a little desperate. He was bigger than her now, and was one of the best-trained people in the world. In a full out fight she could take him, but here? In confined quarters with two children to protect and her not actually wanting to hurt him? The odds were decidedly not in her favor. Her eyes shot to Damian for the briefest moment. His eyes were huge, his face pale. Talia sighed internally. This was the side of Jason he had never wanted them to see. The side of him that he so ruthlessly suppressed.

“Jason,” she pleaded. “Not in front of the children!”

He hesitated for the briefest moment and she felt a surge of hope. “We have to get them out of here, Jason. Focus on that. You have to protect them.”

Jason blinked rapidly, trying to clear his head. The green waters were swirling around his mind, sucking all thought and feeling other than rage into a whirlpool. The acid whispers were laughing and shouting for blood. Everything was green. The only thing he could hear other than the caustic voices was the laughing. He gripped his head. Get the laughing out. Make it stop. He felt something wet on his fingertips but continued scratching at the sides of his head. MAKE IT STOP!

Talia felt more than a little panicked when Jason began clawing at his own head, hard enough to draw blood. She tried jerking his arm away but the awkward positioning made it difficult. “Jason,” she said, fighting to keep her voice calm. “Can you hear me? Nod if you can hear me.”

It sounded like a tornado inside his head, loud rushing and wailing interspersed with that damn laugh. Then something cut through the shrieking and howling. A calm voice. Jason frowned in concentration, trying to hear what it was saying. It was...asking him to nod? Why? It felt like he was lifting a block of concrete, but he forced his head into a jerky nod. The voice was familiar. So familiar. Why couldn’t he remember who it belonged to? The frustration was amplified by the green voices, apparently close enough to anger to survive the whirlpool. Why couldn’t he remember anything?! The voice was still talking, and he clung to the one thing that wasn’t wild and insane in this whirling mess.

Kill! KILL!  the acid voices screamed. “You need to breathe with me,” the calming one said.

“Breathe, akhi!” a new voice cried. Jason sucked in a breath, only now realizing that he had stopped. This was another familiar voice. Who??? He didn’t know. All he knew was that suddenly the need to protect came over him like a wave crashing over a rock. He suddenly was positive -- in a way that nothing ever was in the green whirlpool -- that he could not let this person near the laughing. He turned and the green cleared up just enough that he could see the owner of the voice. A small boy. How did he know this- the memories exploded through his mind. A light brown hand grasping his and pulling him along; a high-pitched voice reading to him, breaking through the heavy white fog that shrouded everything; a warm body holding him tight when he shook uncontrollably; a calming touch when pain was all he could feel. A friend- no. A brother. And next to him...another small figure that shouted conflict and frustration and fear but he knew he had to protect. A taller one, too, one that whispered of kind hands and comfort and gentle kisses and my son. He would kill to protect them, he knew, and the green voices were pleased, but there was nothing to kill. Not here. Not with the calming voices.

With this sudden epiphany the acid voices were pushed down, though they screamed and clawed at his mind, fighting to stay. The green slowly cleared away and he suddenly dropped to the floor, limp and exhausted, his breaths shuddering their way in and out of his lungs. Tears were dripping down his face along with sweat and his body was still shaking. Those familiar, gentle hands wrapped around him, rubbing warmth into his arms and wiping tears from his face. He clung to them, needing something, anything, to ground him.

Talia held her son and rested her forehead on his scalp for a brief moment. She hated this, hated the way the Pit had affected him, the wild swings from Pit Rage to panic attack. But if she could go back and do it again, she knew she would do the same. Even this was better than the mindless husk Jason had been when he first entered her care. She carded her hand through his hair, murmuring comforting words in Arabic before randomly switching to Russian, then Spanish, then Turkish. If she could get Jason’s mind focusing on something other than the fear and adrenaline currently coursing through his system, it might help alleviate the worst of the panic attack. “Breathe with me,” she said quietly in English. She grabbed his hand and placed it on her chest, exaggerating the movement of her breathing. Jason’s hyperventilating slowed until he was breathing at the same pace as her, though his eyes remained unfocused. “Good,” she said, keeping her voice smooth and calm. She was glad that she had the knowledge to help him through these attacks, but she was not happy with how she acquired that knowledge. The memory of him curled in a ball, screaming at any touch or noise, lashing out weakly and sobbing helplessly, would stay with her forever, no matter how big and strong he became.

More explosions and screaming from far below, and despite having been taught that religion was something for the weak, Talia prayed to whoever might be listening that her family would escape this safely. Or at least alive.

A flash of red caught her eye and her head whipped around. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of a masked figure swinging down to the base of the ferris wheel. It bent over the control panel and Talia’s eyes widened in horrified understanding.

“No, you fool,” she breathed. “You will condemn us all.” Drawing the attention of the clown would be a death sentence, and what would catch attention more than the park’s most central ride abruptly starting? A purple and black figure joined the red one and the ride jerked into motion. Talia’s hand went to her concealed dagger.

“Damian. Mara,” she said, her voice that of a commanding officer. The children snapped to attention. “Prepare for battle.” Her dark eyes gleamed in the firelight as she carefully -- and with not a little effort -- moved Jason against the back wall of the carriage, as far away from the door as she could get him. He was not fit to fight. She may not be able to protect him entirely, but she would shield him as much as possible. Talia’s blade was in her hand in one smooth movement and her ready stance was mirrored by her son and niece.

As she had predicted, the moving ferris wheel had drawn the clown’s attention and now Joker goons were approaching from every side, the creature himself skipping towards them. The two masked figures below were fighting off the incoming horde, but their luck would not hold; with the added responsibility of getting the civilians off the ride and to safety, they hadn’t a hope. Talia tightened her grip on her blade. There was no situation where this ended well for them. Either they fought and were inevitably discovered, or they waited and died.

“Aim to kill,” she ordered the children. “Discretion is useless if we are dead.”

Let the Joker try to harm her family. Let the Bat try to take them away. Let her Father attempt an assault. She would kill them all and burn the world to ash if that was what it took. An expression not unlike Jason’s in a Pit Rage grew on her face. No one touched her children.

Chapter Text

Mara’s mouth was dry, whether from the heat of the fire or nerves, she didn’t know. She swallowed quickly, glancing at her cousin and aunt to make sure they hadn’t noticed. There was no room to show weakness, especially not now. The small cracks that had begun to form in Mistress Talia’s severe, deadly exterior as the woman seemed to warm up to her the slightest bit were gone, and Mara had no doubt the woman would kill her for any mistake. It did not cross the girl’s mind to panic, quite the opposite in fact. The knowledge of where she stood was comforting; she did not feel like she was constantly on a knife’s edge, trying to find her balance with every step. This was familiar, she could work with familiar.

Mara chanced a glance back at Mudarris -- no, he had asked her to call him Jason when they weren’t training -- and had to repress a shudder. His eyes were blown wide open, but there was nothing there. He just looked...blank. She had only ever seen one person with eyes like that before: an assassin who returned from some mission changed, who would be perfectly normal one minute and then frozen or moving like in a dream the next. He had been killed, of course, the weak have no place in the League. Mara wondered for a heart-stopping moment if Mistress Talia would finish off the clown and turn next on the young man who had saved her life. She shook the thought away. For one thing, Mistress Talia treated Mu -...Jason as her own son, which was strange, but still true. And everyone knew not to get in Mistress Talia’s way when her son was on the line. Jason twitched violently and Mara felt Mistress Talia’s hard gaze on the back of her neck. The girl quickly faced forward again. She wished the ferris wheel would turn faster. The waiting was always the worst part.

A shadow had her head snapping upwards -- she saw Damian doing the same out of the corner of her eye -- and her eyes widened at the sight of a large black figure descending on the small crowd of clown-masked goons like a bird of prey on a mouse.

Or rather, like a bat on an unsuspecting insect.

Damian met her eyes for a brief moment and she saw her own awe reflected back at her. She had heard whispers of the one called The Bat, when she had sat silently in the shadows of the kitchens, hungrily waiting for any chance to snatch extra food, back before her father redeemed himself and therefore her. In the final weeks before they left the League, Damian had taken to telling her the stories his mother shared with him. She had always felt a bit like she was intruding on something she had no business knowing. The other part of her was eager for any information on the illusive figure. Hearing about the man’s brave exploits and how her grandfather believed him a worthy heir had invited a spark of -- she was ashamed to admit -- envy. Damian’s father was all that her’s had never been, at least in the eyes of the League, and his child showed no signs of disappointing the Demon’s Head. At least, he hadn’t before their treasonous escape.

Part of Mara still longed to return to her life, her home, no matter how cold and unwelcoming it had been. There had been a rhythm to life, she had duties, structure and plans. Her path was clearly set before her and she was marching confidently down it. But now, away from the League, she felt as though she was drifting down a fast-flowing stream with no way to steer. She had no control over where she went, any attempts to reach the shore had been thwarted, and she had no way of knowing if the stream ended in a calm, beautiful lake, or in rapids that would dash her and her rickety boat to pieces. All she could do was hold on tight.

The thought snaked in before she could squash it: and what are you holding tight to? Her gaze drifted back to...Jason before she gritted her teeth and forced herself to study her knife. Such thoughts were foolishness and bound to get her killed. What did it matter that he was the first person to actually look at her as more than a tool or an obstacle since her father died? It didn’t. The girl rubbed an imagined piece of grime off the blade. What was taking so long? They had not seemed to have moved all that much, in the time she had been thinking.

The eight-year-old looked down at the slowly-approaching ground as the ride ground to a halt yet again -- which explained the lack of progress. The girl in black and purple was directing civilians out of the carriage and to safety while the teenager she believed was called ‘Robin’ and the Batman himself kept a path clear for them. Movement caught her eye and she jerked her head around again, trying to trace it. Mara’s eyes widened as she saw the fourth person attacking the clowns.

“Shiva,” she whispered. Though she had not been taught by the woman herself, she recognized the movement, the way a blow never seemed to land. Damian joined her at the railing, peering down.

“Where?” he breathed quietly. She glanced at him and was slightly relieved to see that he looked just as wary of his mother’s mood and unnerved by the rest of the situation as she was.

“There,” she said, pointing. “It must be Shiva. No one else can do that.”

Damian frowned. “What is she wearing? And why is she fighting like that?” Mara frowned at the woman as well. She was holding back, not striking any lethal blows.

“Damian. Mara,” Mistress Talia’s voice said. Both children jerked around, feeling strangely guilty. The woman was examining the situation below, her eyes narrowed. Silence reigned for a moment before the woman said, “It seems we may get out of this without giving ourselves away after all.”

“Mother?” Damian asked.

The Demon’s Daughter cast her gaze downward again before nodding once. “Stow your weapons,” she ordered, sliding her own knives back into their hidden sheathes. “Act the part of a civilian unless desperate and assist me in getting Jason to a safe place.” She crouched by Jason and pulled a thin grey hoodie from her large purse. “We cannot allow them to get a good look at him,” she said calmly, wrangling the teenager’s limp limbs into the sweater with the ease born of long practice.

Mara and Damian exchanged a glance and they both slowly hid their knives, though Mara remained ready to snatch hers up in a heartbeat. She was not sure how they would move Jason, seeing how he was almost twice her height and at least three times her weight, but she had to trust that Mistress Talia had a plan. The woman was now quietly murmuring to Jason and Mara took the opportunity to return to studying the battlefield. A quick elbow had Damian shooting her a poisonous glare which disappeared when he saw what she was looking at.

The Batman, Damian’s father -- ...does that make him her uncle? -- was fighting the tall, outrageously thin man with green hair. She knew who he was, of course -- the League was thorough in their training -- but she had only ever seen pictures. He was...different, in person. He had looked rather harmless in the pictures and she had always wondered how such a fragile person could cause so much trouble. She had made the mistake of mentioning the thought to Damian, who had been outraged at the suggestion that his father’s greatest foe might not be the most formidable of enemies. It quite possibly could have ended in severe injuries, if Jason had not stepped in with a face like thunder and put them both to work scrubbing the courtyard under his watchful eye. He had been late to his lesson with Lady Shiva as a result, had returned to his room limping a bit more than normal, and Damian and Mara had silently agreed not to physically fight anymore, at least over trivial things.

Now that she was seeing the man move herself, she could see that her assessment had been incorrect. The man moved like a snake, but with none of the obvious grace. He never tripped or stumbled, but his movements were jerky, random. He seemed to just move whichever way his thoughts took him with lightning speed. She wasn’t sure why he was laughing, though it certainly made a good distraction. She was feeling unnerved by it and she was still thirty feet above the ground.

A whimper sounded behind her and both children twisted around incredulously. It was...Jason?! Damian had whispered to her once, of how the one called Joker had hurt his brother very badly, but surely, surely the warrior would not allow past harm to prevent him from fighting? If anything, she would expect the memory to give him strength to rain vengeance down on the... thing’s head. She knew Jason had been submerged in the Lazarus Pit -- that incident was spoken of in even more hushed whispers than news of the Bat -- and the waters were known to cause madness and rage. She had never witnessed a Pit Rage before, but it seemed Jason’s earlier response -- he actually hit Mistress Talia. Hit her!! -- fell in those parameters. But fear? She had never heard of the Pit causing fear.

Mistress Talia was speaking quietly in a language that not even Mara knew. From Damian’s confused expression, he didn’t recognize it either. Whatever the woman said, it was enough to slowly, much too slowly, bring life back to Jason’s eyes. Something was still off though, Mara could tell with years of training in body language and expressions that Jason...wasn’t all there. She could only hope that it would be enough, as their carriage lowered the last few feet to the ground and a cowled face appeared at the door.


Steph forced a weary smile onto her face as she opened the door. This would be the tenth carriage in as many minutes -- the ferris wheel took forever to turn -- and she had come to the conclusion that trying to wrangle panicking civilians was more tiring than kicking goons in the face. Two small figures stared up at her and she suppressed a sigh. Great. More kids. Just what she needed. Fortunately these kids didn’t look like they were about to have a mental breakdown and have to be dragged out of the ride screaming. Yeah. How’s your day going?

“Hi guys!” she said, trying to sound calm and cheerful. “We’re gonna walk over to the gates together real quick, ok? You’ll be back home and in your beds in no time!” Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for her, she thought with a grimace. And she had a math test tomorrow. Wonderful. A quiet voice brought her attention back to the present and she kicked herself for being distracted. Focus, dammit! There are more important things going on than you failing Trig!

The voice belonged to a tall, dark-haired woman who was pulling another person up to his feet. Steph’s bat-training kicked in and she did an automatic threat assessment. Because the guy was huge. Like, seriously. He was at least six foot, maybe a bit more, and had a body like freaking Captain America. The hoodie he was wearing and the way he hunched over might have fooled anyone else, but she was used to people hiding muscle and size, and she could tell. She was nervous for a second -- because people react to terror differently and what if he tried to attack her? -- but he made no move to. Actually, he made no move at all until the woman murmured something to him, at which point he straightened up and walked off the ride with surprising grace, even as his eyes remained blank. It was more than a little unsettling, but the children scurried along after what she assumed was their mother and brother with no screaming or crying, so she was mostly cool with it. And if her slightly better mood was a result of being able to roundhouse kick a goon that was getting too close? Well, that was a healthy coping mechanism according to this crazy family she was partly sucked into.

The blonde herded the family towards the lights of police cars, hesitating in her march for half a second when she got a better look at the woman’s face. She was bleeding, her lip swollen. A glance at the most likely culprit showed his knuckles splattered in a light layer of blood. Steph pondered the possible explanations. The woman didn’t seem at all perturbed by her lip, which probably meant this had happened before. Abusive boyfriend? She found that hard to believe, seeing how the young man was just that. Young. But...it was Gotham. She had seen worse. Moreso the fact that they looked similar enough to be mother and son. Maybe it had been an accident? The guy did look like he had something wrong with him mentally. Steph punched another goon and decided that, whatever was going on, she couldn’t figure it out right now. She slipped a tiny tracker into her palm and planted it on the woman’s shoulder when she ushered the family out the gate and into the waiting ranks of police. She’d check up on them when she got some spare time.


Talia knew of the girl’s clumsy attempt to bug her -- how could she not? -- but she disregarded it for the moment in favor of getting Jason somewhere safe. Away from people. “Come,” she ordered in the ancient tongue known only to those trained by the All Caste. Jason followed obediently. Talia led the way back to their car -- which miraculously had been unharmed, though if the pattern of vandalized and vanished cars were any indication, they were just in time -- and drove quickly back to their apartment. She paused only to place the small tracker on a reversing car -- disguising the motion as jumping out of the way while shouting a curse at the driver -- before hurrying the children up into their rooms.

“Remain here,” she ordered, her tone expressing exactly how suicidal arguing would be. “We will return in a few hours.” She left with no further explanation, leaving Damian and Mara staring at each other in the dark living room.

Talia did not speak again until she and Jason were ensconced in an abandoned building that was surrounded on all sides by complete destruction. This was the area hardest hit by the Cataclysm and no rebuilding had been started. She caught sight of a few homeless people roaming about, but they were of no consequence. The building used to be a community center, and they were now standing in the remains of the gym. Her surveillance and inquiries both before and after they had arrived in Gotham had shown this as the best place for an inevitable Pit Attack. It was large and the roof was as stable as anything in the area could be. Best of all, the entrance was blocked almost completely, so it was unlikely a homeless person would choose this as their abode. If they were still in the League, this would be the time she would set Jason against trainees that had earned her displeasure and therefore forfeited their lives, or at least their limbs. Here, she could only hope he did not harm himself irreparably.

Talia made sure he had no weapons and she was standing a safe distance away before speaking the words releasing Jason from the trance she had put him under. It was a dangerous technique, one she had been loathe to use because of the effect it had on the one subjected to it. It allowed Jason to function under command without being affected by panic attacks or PTSD. As far as she understood it, when Jason had been taught meditation and the other mental tricks the All Caste used, something had been placed in his subconscious. A backdoor, if you will, into his brain. This ‘programming’ somehow blocked the body’s normal responses to fear and adrenaline and when it was released, the emotions were released as well. That was all she knew; Ducra had refused to share any further knowledge. With no small amount of trepidation, Talia gave the command.

As expected, Jason blinked and looked around, for the moment perfectly fine. Then he stiffened and dropped to the ground abruptly, curling up in a ball. His body was shaking violently and Talia wished she could go over and comfort him. It was too dangerous, though, a fact which was emphasized when Jason suddenly let out a roar of pain and rage, leaping to his feet and pacing frantically back and forth before abruptly turning and slamming his fist into a wall.

Talia stayed, a silent sentry, unable to help but unwilling to leave, as Jason raged and shook and cried intermittently for what felt like hours until he finally collapsed onto the ground and did not get up. Talia moved forward cautiously. When he made no move to attack her or even so much as twitch, she dropped to her knees beside him, pulling his head into her lap.

“Oh, my son,” she whispered, fighting the burning sensation in her eyes with the same ferocity she fought her enemies. The woman rested her forehead on Jason’s sweaty bangs “'ana asif <I am sorry>.”


Tim grinned tiredly at Steph as she rambled about how she most definitely failed that Trig test and now her mom was going to kill her but it was totally worth it for the night they’d had. Tim dearly hoped that no one was listening, because they would definitely get the wrong idea and he did not want to go the rest of the week being leered at and/or congratulated for finally ‘doing it’. Oh, who was he kidding, the walls had ears here. He was only half listening to his friend as he opened his locker, his mind going back to that weird case from a while ago. He hated unsolved cases. They were like an itch under his skin that he couldn’t reach.

“-and I got absolutely nothing out of her, not even his name or a description-”

“Absolutely nothing,” Tim repeated distractedly, closing the locker again. Suddenly his eyes blew wide and his spine straightened. “That’s it!”

“What?” Steph asked, bewildered by his sudden interjection.

“Steph, you’re a genius!” Tim yelled. He raced down the hall towards the doors.

Steph flipped her hair over her shoulder with a smirk. “Well, duh.” She frowned. “Wait, what did I say?” She dashed after him. “Tim! Why am I a genius?”

She made it out the doors just as Tim was waving down a taxi. Steph’s eyes widened and then narrowed. She sprinted forward and managed to dive into the back seat just as Tim was about to close the door. “What. The hell. Is. Going. On.” she gasped, rubbing her ribs, two of which had been bruised the night before. Tim ignored her.

“Wayne Manor, stat!” he said.

The taxi driver gave him a look. “Yeah, kid, that’s clear outta the city. Gotta give me some proof you can-”. He was cut off by Tim shoving a handful of bills in his face. The man blinked, momentarily taken aback, before grabbing the bills and stuffing them in his pocket. “Wayne Manor, stat,” he repeated. “Strap in, kids.” The tires squealed as the man peeled back into traffic, nearly hitting a bicyclist, a couple walking a dog, and a hot dog truck in his rush.

Tim!” Steph yelled. “What is happening?!”

“I figured something out!” Tim said exuberantly. His eyes were bright and his cheeks flushed and oh boy, Steph knew that face. That was the face he always wore before he dove headfirst into something and didn’t emerge for hours or even days.

“We have a history test tomorrow!” she cried helplessly.

Tim waved her off distractedly. “Doesn’t matter, this is more important.”

“What is so important it can’t wait three hours?!” She waited for an answer but Tim was already scribbling in his notebook and muttering to himself. She sighed and slumped back in the seat, crossing her arms. There was no talking to him now.

They reached the Manor in record speed and Tim ran up the steps and paused only to unlock the front door before he disappeared. Steph sighed and glanced at the driver, who was cheerfully counting the bills Tim had given him. Steph’s eyes bulged. Was that a fifty dollar bill?? The man glanced at her and scowled protectively. “Get movin’, kid.”

She listened, running up the stairs and through the still-open door. The girl almost plowed into another person but managed to skid to a halt in time. She looked up and grinned nervously. “Hi Alfred! I’m just following Tim!”

Alfred raised the Eyebrow of Doom and Steph wilted slightly. “Master Tim has just legged it past me yelling about solving something and history tests. Would you happen to know anything about that?”

“Not really. He just suddenly freaked out and ran off, so I followed him.”

The butler looked decidedly unimpressed as Steph awkwardly edged around him. “Um, thanks Alfred, bye!” She dashed off but still caught the man’s comment of, “Far be it from me to put an end to your running, it is not as if this house is filled with antiques.” She winced and slowed her pace slightly as she went down to the cave.

She still got excited every time she entered the massive space; after all, it wasn’t that long ago that she had finally been allowed her own codes and equipment. There was a part of her that still worried that Batman would have enough of her and kick her out, that she would be stuck on her own, on the outside. Steph shook herself. Get a grip, she told herself. That’s not gonna happen. If nothing else, Babs wouldn’t leave her out in the cold. She could see Tim right away, sitting at the main computer and typing rapidly. He pulled up a file and started scrolling through it, enlarging some parts and moving them around. She rolled her eyes and wandered over to the lockers, knowing better than to bother him while he was working. When she emerged in workout clothes he had moved to sticking post-it notes all over a whiteboard and scribbling lines and notes everywhere.

Steph watched him while she stretched -- not like they were going to get back to school, might as well make good use of the time -- and began practicing her katas. After twenty minutes she had worked up a pretty good sweat and was sick of all the silence, so she walked over to where Tim was staring silently at the board, the little furrow in his brow showing that he was thinking hard.

“So. Tim. Whatcha doing?”

“Look at this,” he said, surprising her by answering at all. He walked forward and pulled a glossy photo off the board, shoving it in her face. She swatted his hands away and studied it.

“This is a picture of a room.”

“Yes.”

Steph shot him a disbelieving look. “Is this supposed to mean something to me?”

Tim sighed dramatically. “It’s a case that came up a few weeks ago. A guy reported screaming ‘like nothing he had ever heard before’.” She could practically hear the air quotes. “I went and found nothing. Oracle couldn’t find anything either. So we put a pin in it.” He spun away from her and started pacing, frowning intently at the board. “But you reminded me. There wasn’t anything. What’s that, there?” he asked, stopping in front of her and tapping the picture she held. She glanced down and squinted at one dim corner.

“Needles. Not exactly noteworthy in a Lower Gotham apartment.”

“But that’s just it! It’s not noteworthy! In fact, there was nothing to record on those needles at all!”

Steph stared at him. Now, she wasn’t stupid, she did well in her classes and was a pretty solid detective, but… “You’ve lost me.”

Tim ran a hand through his hair. It needed a cut, she noted absently. “There was nothing on the needles! No DNA, no trace of what kind of drug was used!”

Steph blinked in confusion. “Are you sure?”

Tim threw his hands in the air. “Of course I’m sure! We didn’t know if the screaming was caused by some new drug so of course I tested all of them! And that’s not all! There was no DNA or biological matter anywhere in the room! I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before! Stupid!” He smacked himself in the forehead.

Steph gave him a look. “Ok, so that’s really weird. But what does it mean?”

“It means that something or some one went through the entire room and destroyed all DNA evidence, even if it wasn’t from them! Someone is hiding their tracks.” He beamed. “And they hid them so well that they gave themselves away!”

Chapter Text

Pain. That was the first thing that Jason registered as he slowly blinked his way back into consciousness. Everything hurt, including his brain. He groaned quietly and rolled onto his knees. A shock of pain went through his right hand and he opened his mouth to spew out some curses, but all that came out was a weak rasping noise. Jason gritted his teeth and forced himself upright, swaying slightly on his feet. His head felt like someone was simultaneously jackhammering concrete and playing tribal drums inside his cranium and a glance down showed that the skin around his right knuckles was split, the blood already dried. Jason looked around himself warily. He had no idea where he was and he did not like that.

He took a step forward and instantly felt a wave of nausea crash over him. Jason dropped down into a crouch automatically, ducking his head between his knees and breathing raggedly until the burning desire to puke out his guts disappeared. Drugged? he wondered. But how the hell could anyone get close enough to drug him without him noticing? He wasn’t being arrogant when he said that no one he did not trust could have done this. Talia, was his next thought, but he pushed it down viciously. She wouldn’t do that to him. She wouldn’t. Something else must have happened. He tried to think of other options, but his head was so damn fuzzy at the moment and he didn’t know why.

“Jason!”

The teenager snapped his head around and cursed as the tribal drums grew that much more frenetic with the movement. He closed his eyes tightly and willed the headache and nausea and fucking fuzziness to go the hell away. Someone came near him and his hand shot out automatically, catching a wrist in a punishing grip. His left hand; he at least had enough survival instincts not to use his right when it had undetermined damage.

“Jason,” Talia’s voice said calmly. Jason forced his eyes open and stared uncomprehendingly at the woman for a long few moments. For her part, she didn’t so much as twitch as his grip remained hard. “The date is Friday, April twenty-ninth, the time is eight seventeen a.m. Yesterday we went to the amusement park and were present for an attack facilitated by the Joker. You were subjected to a Pit Rage and panic attack. I put you under Sharat when other methods of removing you from the situation safely proved futile and brought you here to weather the effects.” As she spoke, Jason’s hold on her wrist loosened slightly, the fog clearing away from his brain slowly.

“Where?” he rasped out, releasing her. Talia motioned for him to sit and gracefully lowered herself down beside him.

“We are in the remains of the Samaritan Community Center. It was the safest place I could find,” she replied, handing him a bottle of water. He took it carefully in both hands, unsure if his hands were as shaky as he felt, but not wanting to risk it. “Damian and Mara are safe back at the apartment. We will go to them once you feel up to it.”

Jason tilted his head back and let the water trickle down his torn-up throat. It helped clear the last of the fuzziness from his mind and his fist suddenly tightened around the bottle, spilling water over his hands. The sudden sting in the right was unexpected and made him hiss in surprise and pain.

Talia leaned over and took his right hand between both of hers. “You damaged your hand after I released you,” she said matter-of-factly. “I have a first aid kit.” She looked at his face, one eyebrow quirked the slightest bit so that he’d recognize the question. Jason nodded and held his hand out. She opened the small box and began cleaning dried blood and bits of plaster from the cuts over his knuckles. “Broken,” she said, prodding at the fingers, her lips a thin line of displeasure. She wrapped them up and gave him a quick once-over, letting out a pleased hum when she found no other injuries that could not be cured with a bandaid. “Good. I would be most displeased if you had managed to severely injure yourself after the pains I went through to prevent it at another’s hand.” Jason smiled the tiniest bit.

“Did I-” he stopped and cleared his throat when the words came out as a rasp. “Did I hurt anyone?”

“No,” Talia said calmly, but Jason caught the slightest flicker in her eyes.

“I don’t believe you,” he said, eyes narrowed.

Talia looked into his eyes, studying him. She sighed after a moment and tilted her chin, drawing attention to her split and slightly swollen lip. Jason’s eyebrows furrowed in concern and his left hand came up but stopped before touching her. “What happened?”

“You were in the throes of a Pit Rage and it looked like you were about to jump out of the Ferris wheel. I grabbed your arm to stop you and you backhanded me. You need not concern yourself,” she continued, packing up the first aid kit. “It is causing me no pain and has already mostly healed.” Jason’s hand dropped back into his lap and she glanced up at him from testing the bandage. “Jason,” she said, seeing the downcast look on his face. “Abn, this was not your fault. You know that.” He sighed and nodded, though he still looked crestfallen.

Talia went to push the issue but he cut her off with a sigh and a “I just want to go home.” Her heart clenched at the words, wondering if he meant somewhere other than their small apartment, but she stood up and silently offered a hand to Jason. They slowly made their way out of the ruined community center and through the other destroyed buildings. Jason looked around despondently. His mind was clearer, yes, but he still could not fully remember what happened after they got on the Ferris wheel. All he got were flashes of screaming and fear, all drenched in poison green. He sighed in relief when they reached the car, sliding into the passenger seat and knuckling his eyes. He wasn’t sure how long he had been freaking out in the abandoned building, but he was exhausted.

Talia glanced at him. “Sleep, Abn,” she said, carefully maneuvering the car through the wreckage. “None shall harm you.”

Jason leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes, and did just that.


Damian leapt to his feet when a key rattled in the apartment door, Mara a half-second behind him. The katana and dual-knives were quickly lowered as the familiar figures of Jason and Talia appeared in the doorway.

Akhi!” Damian cried, hurrying up to Jason and looking him over quickly. “Are you alright? What did you do to your hand?”

Jason smiled a very fake smile and said, “Got stupid, punched a wall. They’ll be fine in a day or two, just fractures.”

Damian continued hovering nervously as Jason slowly walked to the couch and fell onto it face-first. The boy glanced at Mara and met her equally confused gaze before looking up at his mother.

She sighed quietly and said, “Would you not be more comfortable in your bed, Jason?”

Jason didn’t lift his head, waving dismissively with his unsplinted hand. “‘m fine here,” his muffled voice said.

Damian didn’t know what to think. Jason was not one to miss the chance to lay in a bed when he was truly trying to sleep -- something that he didn’t do nearly enough, in Damian’s opinion. He looked at his mother again, who was watching Jason with what looked like resignation.

“Very well,” the woman said. “We will be in the kitchen if you have need of us.” With that, she motioned for Damian and Mara to join her on the other side of the half-wall that doubled as a bar. Damian wasn’t sure why they bothered, it was not as if a few feet would block any noise they made. Maybe, he realized a half-second later, as she began speaking, that was the point. “Well, Damian, Mara, you have been working on your katas daily but you have not been working on some other skills.”

Damian and Mara blinked at each other in confusion. “Mother?” Damian asked, brow furrowing.

“To be proper” his mother hesitated for a moment before forcing the words out, “heirs to the Demon, you must be skilled in many things. Combat is a major part of that but it is not everything. First of all, accounting.” She dropped a huge book on the kitchen table. Damian had no idea where it came from. “You must be able to tell at a glance if the numbers add up or if someone is embezzling funds or otherwise making mistakes. You have, of course, heard the phrase ‘an army marches on its stomach’. Similarly, organizations march on their finances. The League is no exception.” She placed two legal pads on the table and flipped the book open to a random page. “Add these numbers up,” she said, pointing, “find the gains and the losses as well as the total profit. Compare with each other and come to a consensus. I will check your work once you have finished.”

She swept into the kitchen and made some tea before going into her and Damian’s bedroom, reappearing a moment later with a book and sitting in one of the armchairs near Jason. She did not spare them another glance and Damian and Mara slowly sat down and started adding numbers, glancing at each other now and then. Both children jumped slightly when Talia’s voice started up again, Damian perking up a bit when he realized she was reading aloud. His anticipation to hear one of the ancient epics was soon changed to confusion as he realized this was not one of the normal stories his mother read on the rare occasion they got to sit together. He looked over at his brother, wondering what the older boy thought about this strange occurrence and if Jason was the reason it was happening.

Jason felt like he was floating but at the same time being crushed under a heavy weight. His mind flitted this way and that and he couldn’t seem to focus on much of anything while his body lay limp and tired, unable to fight against the force that pinned him in place. He twitched slightly as insidious laughter crept around the corners of his consciousness, but had no energy to force it away.

He was so tired. Flashes of memory from the last night kept leaking through, accompanied by an insane amount of adrenaline that screwed his muscles up as tight as they could go and made him feel like any touch would shatter him into a million pieces. He could not truly sleep, every time he edged near the drop into unconsciousness a flash of white and red and green would dance across his mind with all the subtlety of a crowbar. He could feel the panic creeping up on him, could feel the hissing at the back of his mind grow louder along with the laughter. His fingers jerked helplessly and if he could sit up and run, he would. The couch was soft, he knew that, but at the moment it felt an awful lot like concrete. The familiar scent of spices and perfume that followed Talia everywhere slowly melted away, replaced by the sharp odor of cigarette smoke.

He knew at that moment that if he opened his eyes he would be in a warehouse, not the apartment Talia had rented. He was strangely grateful that his body was so heavy now, as it prevented him from opening his eyes and confronting the images his mind conjured. It didn’t help with the sounds, though. Metal screeching against concrete, light skipping footsteps, that high-pitched voice all worked together to fill in the blanks left by his eyelids.

Jason was just resigning himself to well and truly panicking when a new sound cut across the Joker’s mad cackling. A warm, calm voice speaking in a cadence and rhythm that pointed to a book. “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs-”. The Joker’s footsteps faltered, his laughter hitched, and the musty smell of cigarettes mixed oddly with that of cardamom and cinnamon. The words loosened the weight on his body and gave his mind something to anchor on to. A tiny sigh crossed his lips as he sank a bit deeper into the once-again-soft couch. That was Talia’s voice, and she never read aloud unless they were safe and in a private place where no spying eyes could see or listening ears could hear. He was safe too, then. The realization helped sweep the final remnants of memory back into the file marked with a big bold ‘NEVER’ in bright red ink, right alongside anything to do with Bruce. His muscles still felt horribly tight, but now that his thoughts had something to latch on to it wasn’t as bad. He could ignore it. Mostly.

Jason drifted in a daze, hovering on the edge of sleep and wakefulness. If he was awake he would have to deal with any questions or responsibilities that came his way; if he was asleep...well, he wouldn’t stay asleep. So he merely floated, listening to Talia’s smooth voice as it narrated the adventures of Mole and Rat and Badger and the frankly ridiculous Toad. Honestly, the guy was an amateur. Announcing himself as a wanted criminal to the people he was planning on stealing from? Ridiculous. He totally deserved those twenty years in prison just for being an idiot.

He wasn’t sure how long Talia had been reading and he had been drifting before he finally pushed himself upright, but it had to have been at least two hours. She glanced at him but didn’t halt her rendition. Jason stretched his arms and rolled his neck, wincing at the cracking noise. His hand came away from his face smeared with the light brown makeup they used to make him blend in more with the rest of his little family. He grimaced but decided to deal with it when he felt more alive. A cup of tea sat on the coffee table in front of him and he scooped it up. It had long gone cold but he drained it anyway, thankful for the sweet, refreshing taste of chamomile. He couldn’t say he felt rested, but he was at least a bit more alert. His muscles had slowly been relaxing as Talia continued reading, and the tea helped chase away a bit more of it. He still felt stiff, but not any more than after a hard sparring session. Talia finished off the chapter and closed the book, slipping a bookmark in to mark their place.

“How are you feeling?” she asked quietly.

Jason paused and considered for a moment. “Better,” he finally said. “Not great. But better.”

Talia nodded and stood up. “Come eat something, you should be hungry.”

Jason wasn’t, actually, but he recognized the significance of Talia saying ‘should be’ instead of ‘must be’ and wisely decided not to fight a battle he would certainly not win. He followed Talia into the kitchen, cracking his back as he stood up, and saw Damian and Mara bickering quietly, heads bent of a piece of paper. He sat down opposite them and waited for them to notice him. They ignored him entirely, wholly engrossed with their argument. Jason raised an eyebrow and reached forward slowly, snatching the paper out from under them. Both children’s heads shot up, surprised and indignant looks on their faces. Jason very pointedly ignored them and scanned the paper.

“Wow, Tals, got them on administration already?” he asked the woman, not looking up.

Akhi! Give that back!” Damian demanded. Jason ignored him, hiding the tiny smirk that tried to break free at the younger boy’s frustrated tone.

“Let’s see…‘your location is being attacked by a large number of enemy assailants. You can withdraw to a new location safely if you leave behind a number of prisoners. The prisoners do not all belong to the enemy, though some do, and all may have vital information. What course of action would you take?’” Jason looked up at Talia as she put a bowl of soup down in front of him, one eyebrow raised. “No kid-gloves, huh?”

“We have no need for ‘kid-gloves’!” Damian declared, glaring across the table. “I obviously knew right away what to do!”

“You do not!” Mara protested, startling Jason slightly by the vehemence of her words. “Staying and fighting is suicide! Just kill the prisoners and leave!”

“They might have vital information!”

“That’s why you kill them! So that the information dies with them!”

“But we need it!”

“The information would do no one any good if we are all dead and that is all that would come of your foolish plan!”

Damian bristled even more and Jason grinned slightly in amusement. He looked like a hummingbird. They both did, actually. Really, really angry hummingbirds. Jason figured he better stop their fight before they actually started pecking at one another.

“Ok, ok, you’re both wrong,” he said, putting the paper down and picking up his spoon with his left hand. Mara and Damian both stopped and turned to stare at him.

“What?” Damian demanded. Mara didn’t echo him, but she looked like she wanted to.

Jason gave a lazy smirk. “Obviously the only way to do it is to take the most promising prisoners, kill the rest, and hightail it to the new location. They’ll be so busy attacking the old base, you probably would make it without too much trouble, especially if you only took like four prisoners.” He scooped up a mouthful of soup and winced as it burned his mouth.

The eight-year-olds stared at him in silence for a long moment before looking at each other. “Well,” Mara said, folding her arms, “how would you choose which prisoners to take?”

Jason shrugged, gesturing with his spoon. “One from each group if you can manage it. Whichever ones you think have the best chance of having information and giving it.” He smirked again. “Simple.”

Damian looked at his mother. “Mother? Is that the correct answer?” he asked.

Talia placed three more bowls of soup on the table and sat down. “There is no correct answer to this type of question,” she said calmly. “It is a matter of making you think. You must grow accustomed to weighing the risks and the outcomes of many plans and choosing the most beneficial.”

Jason grinned. “But she still likes mine the best, right Tals?”

The woman stared at him impassively. “I find myself hard-pressed to trust the advice of the person who, when given the chance, ordered a strike team to retrieve ice cream and”, she grimaced “chili dogs from another continent.”

Jason could feel his ears start to burn as Mara and Damian looked at him incredulously. “That was one time !” he protested. A tiny quirk at the corner of Talia’s mouth was the only sign that she was laughing at him and Jason folded his arms and sank down in his seat a little. “They didn’t even get the right chili dogs,” he muttered sulkily. The woman’s mouth twitched a bit higher and Jason felt an answering grin rising on his face. It soon turned into a chuckle at the memory of the strike team’s faces when he had given the order. Soon, Jason was laughing uproariously while Talia smiled fondly and Damian and Mara were still completely confused.


Bruce rubbed at his temples as he descended the stairs to the Cave. He had gotten a call from Gotham Academy that Tim had disappeared just before lunch and had not returned to class. He had been in the middle of a particularly mind-numbing meeting at the time, so he wasn’t as upset as he could have been -- though Lucius looked like he was about to flay him alive --, but he seriously needed to nip this in the bud. This was the third time this month that Tim had left school early or just didn’t show up at all. Finals were happening, weren’t they? The kid was a genius, no doubt about that, but genius that wasn’t applied did no good to anybody, least of all the sixteen-year-old he still didn’t feel qualified to care for most of the time.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and was surprised to see Stephanie hitting one of the punching dummies as if it had personally offended her. She looked up as he walked further into the room and actually grinned.

“Bruce! Thank God,” she said, walking over to him.

Bruce did his best to remain impassive, though he kind of felt like staring. Stephanie was never this happy to see him. Not that he could blame her. The thought made his lips tighten slightly, the familiar guilt rising in his chest. “Is something wrong, Stephanie?” he asked.

The girl cocked her head to one side. “Oh, you know, not much; just that your son is an absolute maniac.”

Bruce raised one eyebrow, trying to hide the fluttery feeling in his chest at the word ‘son’. Now that was a development he was very pleased about. “How so?”

The girl let out a gusty sigh that sounded distinctly exasperated and said, “Well, first he drags me here out of school and then he tells me some crazy stuff about this case he’s got and now he won’t so much as look at me!”

“Hn,” Bruce grunted, marching over to the table that Tim was bobbing around, still in his school uniform. As he drew closer Tim snatched a piece of paper from one of the printers and smacked it onto the table. The boy barely took a second to look at the table before dashing off to the computer and inputting some more data. Bruce watched him bemusedly, arms folded lightly over his chest. “Tim,” he said.

The boy jumped and jerked around. His face split into a grin, his eyes sparking. “Bruce! C’mere, you gotta check this out!” He grabbed Bruce’s arm and tugged him towards a whiteboard. Bruce sighed mentally and followed. Tim wouldn’t hear anything he had to say about missing school right now so he might as well find out why the boy had bailed. He frowned as Tim excitedly explained about the needles and the complete lack of biological material anywhere in the room.

“I was very thorough because we didn’t know the COD; you saw the report! If there was something in that room, I would have found it.” Tim looked confident in his assertion, but the quick glance at Bruce did not go unnoticed.

The man wasn’t quite sure if he was going about this the right way, but he knew that Tim fed off of compliments and reassurance like a plant does sunlight. And by ‘he knew’ he meant that Alfred had told him. Whenever he thought about it, it made him self-conscious about his inability to provide that sort of thing -- which Alfred had also expounded on at great length. Bruce rubbed at his chin, a tad nervous, though his voice gave away nothing of the sort. “I know you would have.” At his words Tim brightened and Bruce mentally sighed in relief. He hadn’t messed that one up.

“So the question now is who has the tech to completely destroy all biological material like that?” Tim paced back and forth, pointing at the table. “I’ve been trying to figure out what sort of compound could do it. If we figure that out, we can figure out who can make it.”

“Whoever you’re looking for also has the ability to almost flawlessly scrub footage,” a robotic voice said from the main computer.

“Oracle,” Bruce said, nodding at the computer.

The green screen disappeared, showing Barbara Gordon, who looked out at them with a furrowed brow. “Whoever did this is good, Bruce. I almost didn’t catch the jumps.”

“Well that narrows down your suspect pool,” Stephanie said, popping up beside Tim.

Bruce narrowed his eyes in thought. “Lex Luthor or the League of Assassins are the most likely suspects,” he said after a moment.

“Unless Luthor upped his hacker paygrade by a lot, it’s probably the League,” Barbara replied. “I’m in his system right now and no response. No unusual hires either. I’ll keep looking, though.”

“Send me the footage,” Bruce said, sitting down smoothly.

“Jumps occur between two twelve and five thirty-six,” Barbara said, her voice accompanied by the clicking of computer keys. “The inserted footage is a mixture of loops and footage from other nights. And it’s almost seamless. I have them marked.”

Bruce pulled up the footage and scanned it carefully. A few taps of the keys had the video slowing. Tim leaned over his shoulder and Stephanie hovered on the other side. The trio watched as the impressively large number of tiny inconsistencies appeared in the footage, showing where it had been removed or replaced. Bruce admitted to himself that he would only have caught about half of them by himself. It was at about the two twenty-seven marker that Tim cried, “Stop!” Bruce quickly paused the footage. Tim leaned even closer to the monitor. “Zoom in, bottom right corner, and replay the last five seconds.” Bruce did so and they all watched as movement flashed along the very edge of the screen. Bruce slowed the footage down further and played it again.

“That’s a sword,” Stephanie breathed. “Right?” She looked quickly at her companions. Bruce nodded.

“It is indeed.”

“League, then,” Barbara said pensively. She pressed her fingertips together, the light from her monitor glancing off her glasses. “Do they have the tech?”

Bruce’s brow furrowed. “Nothing field-ready when I was there, but it has been a long time. Ra’s’ scientists work fast. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“But why would they be here again? Is it Ra’s just trying to get a foothold here again? Or Talia trying to get your attention?” Tim asked.

Bruce folded his hands and pressed them against his mouth. “There has been no League activity in Gotham for over a year. I suppose this is overdue.”

“But drawing attention to themselves like that?” Barbara interjected. “That’s not the League’s style.”

Bruce grunted in agreement, pulling up a file. Stephanie sucked in a breath, her whole body went stiff. Bruce twisted to look at her, along with Tim. Barbara’s brow furrowed.

“Steph?” she asked.

“I- I’ve seen her,” Stephanie breathed, sounding thunderstruck.

What?”

Where?”

When?”

Their voices overlapped and clashed as they all yelled at the same time. Stephanie held her hands up and took a half-step back. “Woah! Last night at the amusement park! She was in the Ferris wheel with two kids and a young guy.”

“Are you sure it was her?” Bruce demanded.

Stephanie studied the picture intently. “Yes,” she said finally, giving a decisive nod. “Her hair was a bit different and I think...she might have been wearing makeup? But it’s her. I’m sure.”

“So Talia is in the city,” Bruce said, absentmindedly running a hand through his hair. He realized what he was doing and forced his hand back down by his side. “We don’t know where she is though. She could be gone already.”

“Well, about that….”

Bruce twisted to face Stephanie again. She grinned, looking triumphant and a bit nervous. “I kind of put a tracker on her?”

Chapter Text

Steph sighed as she slowly spun her chair. For the past two days they had been spending every free hour scouring the city for any sign of Talia al Ghul. Steph knew she had planted the tracker correctly -- Babs assured her that the woman was an expert and most likely planted it on that random car intentionally. So at least it hadn’t fallen off. Right now Babs was busy scanning CCTV footage, tracing the car’s steps in the hope of finding where it and Talia had interacted. The girl rubbed her eyes tiredly. Since it was Sunday, she had been hanging out all day helping with the search. She had trawled through what felt like hours of security footage, been kicked off the computers after pulling up Solitaire one too many times, and finished all of her homework. All of it.

Their search hadn’t been completely fruitless, she supposed, as there were now several pictures of their targets stuck to the wall. Steph rolled herself closer towards them, her eyes narrowing at the largest picture, the only clear one they had of all four targets. Tim had been chattering her ear off with theories about who the other three people could be and how they were connected with Talia. The only thing Steph could point out with any certainty was how the young man looked at the woman and kids. There was fondness there, she might even venture to say love. And the mischievous way he was grinning at the younger boy in another one of the pictures just screamed siblings or something close. Of course, these observations had just made Tim scoff before he frowned and hurried off to talk to Bruce.

“Anything?” Steph asked, for what felt like the millionth time.

“Nothing definitive yet,” Babs replied, the nails of her left hand tapping on the desk. “But we’re getting there. Why don’t you go see what Cass is up to?”

Steph brightened slightly and hopped out of her seat to go find the quiet girl who had disappeared an hour or two ago. She was in the Clocktower’s training room, weaving among several dummies. Steph watched, enthralled as always, as Cass lashed out abruptly, hitting all the mannequins in debilitating spots in a matter of seconds. Steph clapped and Cass turned and smiled at her, not surprised at all by her presence.

“Babs?” Cass asked, accepting the towel that Steph tossed her.

“Still tracking the car my tracer was on,” Steph said with a sigh.

Cass hummed softly, her sharp eyes looking Steph up and down. “Spar?”

Steph scoffed. “As you have proven many times, you can beat me with your eyes closed. It wouldn’t be much of a spar.”

Cass tilted her head to one side. “Go easy,” she said carefully. “Good for you.”

Steph just looked at her for a moment before abruptly throwing her hands in the air. “Why not.”

They squared off and Steph didn’t wait before charging forward and aiming a flying kick at Cass’ head. She was deflected easily and hit the floor in a forward roll, coming up with Cass to her back and sweeping out a leg behind her. The girl didn’t go down, of course, but it gave Steph a moment to get back on her feet. If Cass had been actually trying, she would be pinned already, probably from the moment she was within grabbing range. As it was, she lasted about five minutes before Cass ground her face into the floor. She tapped out and Cass pulled her to her feet.

“Did good,” Cass said. “Last...longer.”

Steph snorted. “That’s not saying much.” She comforted herself with the thought that Tim couldn’t last more than a few minutes with Cass either. In fact, Bruce was the only one who could hold his own against Cass for any period of time. She did feel a bit more settled now, which she supposed was what Cass had intended.

Babs’ voice suddenly came echoing through the building from the extensive intercom system. “Alright, ladies, playtime’s over. Facial recognition just picked up Talia.” The young women hurried back up to the control room, where Babs was talking to Bruce on one of her screens. “Patching it through now.”

Steph leaned forward excitedly. The woman on the screen was walking up to an apartment building, alone. She paused at the wall of mailboxes just inside the door and glanced directly at the camera installed over them as she very deliberately removed an envelope from her jacket and slid it into the mailbox numbered 49.

“When was this?” Bruce demanded.

“About twenty minutes ago,” Babs replied. “I’m forwarding you the address.”

“Suit up,” Bruce snapped. Steph could see him stand up on his screen. Tim was beside him now, along with Dick, who had dropped by for his twice-monthly patrol with Tim and was already in the Nightwing suit.

The sixteen-year-old frowned. “But it's not fully dark!”

“Whatever Talia is doing, she’s moving now,” Bruce explained crisply. “We can’t wait. Batgirl, Black Bat, you two are the closest. Get the letter and watch the apartment but do not engage. I’m sending Nightwing over to you now; Robin and I will follow. Batman, out.”


Jason finished off his final set of stretches and stood up, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “Alright midgets, finish your stretches and get cleaned up. I’m going to rinse off.” By the time he had rid himself of sweat and gotten dressed he could hear Damian and Mara bickering at the door about who got to use the bathroom first. The nineteen-year-old rolled his eyes and opened the door. Both kids made a mad dash to get past him but he grabbed both of them by their collars and lifted them off the floor.

“Where’s the fire?” he asked, quirking a brow.

“Jason! Tell Mara to surrender the bathroom to me!” Damian yelled.

“You always get to go first!”

“Obviously, because I am of superior-” Damian was rather rudely cut off when Jason shook him a bit.

“Hey, none ‘a that.” Jason eyed them both and then said. “Ok, this is how we’re gonna do this.” He put them down but kept a hand on each of them. “Rock paper scissors. One round.” They stared at him blankly. He stared back for a second. “Do you- do you really not know what rock paper scissors is?” They just kept looking at him. “I have failed you.” Jason heaved a sigh and explained the rules.

“But that makes no sense!” Damian argued. “How could paper possibly withstand a rock? Unless it is a book? But even then it could be damaged-”

Jason groaned and rubbed at his face, looking heavenward for strength. “I know it makes no sense, that’s just how it works. Now are you gonna play or are you gonna talk?”

Damian still looked rather disgruntled, but he held out his fist. Mara did the same. Jason grinned. “Ok, when I say go. Rock, paper, scissors, Go!” Damian threw out scissors, which Jason had expected. Apparently Mara had anticipated that too, for her hand remained in a tight fist. Or maybe she was just lucky. Either way, it didn’t matter. “Mara wins,” Jason decreed cheerfully.

Damian looked absolutely livid at this news. Mara grinned and sauntered into the bathroom. Jason rolled his eyes again and knocked on the door. “Don’t take too long, ‘kay?”

“Yes, Mudarris!” the girl called.

Jason chuckled and lightly squeezed Damian’s shoulder. “Come on, kiddo, let’s go see what we have for dinner.”

Talia came in while he was rooting around in the cupboards for ingredients and Mara -- who had traded places with Damian -- was setting the table. “Hey, Tals,” he said cheerfully.

“Jason,” she replied. He straightened up and frowned at her.

“What’s wrong?”

Talia sighed and said, “What are you making?”

Jason’s eyes narrowed at the deflection but he shrugged, “Haven’t decided yet.”

“Something quick, then. We have little time.”

Alarm bells rang in Jason’s head. “What is it?”

Talia shook her head. “I would wait until we are eating,” she said calmly. Jason tried hard not to glare at being kept in the dark and nodded brusquely, beginning to slap some sandwiches together. Damian appeared after a minute, his hair still damp.

“Mother!”

“Damian,” she replied, nodding at him.

The boy stopped, cocking his head to one side. “Is something the matter?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Jason said, putting the plate of sandwiches down a bit harder than necessary.

Talia sat down and waited until everyone had taken a sandwich before saying, “My Father is closing in on us.”

Jason had expected something like this and hadn’t even taken a bite of his food. Unfortunately, Mara was not as prepared. Fortunately, she managed to stop coughing before Jason had to do the Heimlich maneuver.

“So we’re leaving?” Jason asked, once the excitement had died down.

“No, we are not.”

Jason narrowed his eyes at the woman. “Talia, this had better not be one of those ‘we’re not but I am’ things.” Talia just looked at him silently. Jason thunked his head on the table -- narrowly missing his plate -- and muttered, “Goddam it, Talia.”

“They would have us in an instant if we fled together,” she said firmly, “and I refuse to allow any of you to fall into his hands. I will go and lay down false trails, lead them away. Then I will return to you.”

“And what exactly are we supposed to do here?” Jason demanded, getting up from the table and pacing back and forth like an irate tiger. “Just twiddle our thumbs and hope that Ra’s doesn’t come for us? Doesn’t catch you?”

“You will be fine,” Talia said, watching him carefully. “I have a plan.”

“Oh! Oh well if you have a plan then I guess it’s all okay! No problems, you have a plan,” Jason spat.

Talia’s eyes narrowed and she stood up slowly. “Jason. Calm yourself.”

“How am I supposed to be calm?!” Jason yelled, spinning around to face her. “You’re going off on a suicide mission without backup!”

“Do not be ridiculous. It is neither a suicide mission nor am I without support.” Talia’s eyes flashed with a warning light. If Jason had been paying attention he would have noticed it and probably watched his words, but as it was he just kept ranting.

“Your assassins don’t count! I know you think they’re faithful but any one of them could be a spy! You can’t just-” Talia’s hand cracked across his cheek. Jason blinked in surprise. Damian and Mara were frozen in their seats, their eyes huge.

Talia put her hands on her hips. “Now that you are calmer, let me repeat: I have a plan. I will be fine. Also, I will contact you if I need help.” She pressed a burner phone into his hands and he took it dazedly. “Several of my operatives will remain in Gotham. You can contact them through here as well and vice versa. They will warn you if the plan must change.”

“You have to call every day,” Jason said, his voice hoarse. “I don’t care what else is going on, you have to call or I swear to God I’ll hunt you down in whatever remote corner of the globe you’ve hidden.”

Talia allowed a small smile to cross her lips. “Of course, Jason. If I am unable to do so myself for whatever reason, I will have someone else contact you.” Jason looked down, trying to hide the burning in his eyes.

Talia’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She glanced at it and said. “I must go.” A few quick steps and she was beside Damian, dropping to her knees and pulling him into a tight hug. "Kuna shujaeaan muharabaa alsaghir <Be brave, my little warrior>,” she whispered. His scared eyes stared into hers and she pulled him close to her chest for just a few seconds more before forcing herself to stand up. The woman looked at Mara for a moment before inclining her head in a nod. Mara bowed back. Talia strode into her room, returning with a duffle bag tossed over her shoulder. Jason followed her to the door, twin storms boiling in his eyes.

Talia stopped at the threshold, the door propped half open. She wrapped her arms around Jason for a moment, feeling his strong arms squeeze around her. She looked up into his eyes, putting a hand on his cheek. He felt himself leaning into her touch without even thinking about it, his eyes closing. “I am sorry,” she whispered. Jason felt something press into his hand and took it automatically. “He will keep you safe.” It sounded like a promise. Jason’s brow furrowed slightly in confusion. “Be safe my son. Protect them.” Then Talia was gone.

Jason stared after her blankly, a foreboding feeling rising in his chest. ‘He will keep you safe’? What did that mean? Who was ‘he’? A horrible suspicion dawned on him and he looked down at his hand. A letter. He ripped it open, fumbling to unfold it. The damning words stared up at him:

My son,

I hope that one day you can forgive me for this course of action. Know that all that I do, I do out of love. I must go to lead my Father away, but I cannot in good conscience leave you on your own in Gotham. I have left enough clues that your father should arrive soon enough. He will protect you and Damian and Mara.’ The last name was written a bit more hastily, as if it were an afterthought. Jason figured he should be happy Talia had included the girl’s name at all. ‘I will return as soon as I am able and we will find our own place in this world, where neither my father nor yours can touch us. Below I have included the location of much of our supplies, including the majority of your armory. Keep Damian safe, both from physical and emotional threats. I know you hate your father but Damian has never known him. Knowing my Beloved, it will be a difficult meeting. It would mean the world to your brother, and to me, if you would help ease the transition, if only by your presence. If you are unable, do not force yourself. You have every right to be upset and if there were any other course of action available, know that I would take it. But I must know that you are safe. I fully believe that between you and I, we will be able to keep our family together, no matter my Beloved’s interference. Hold onto that hope, and pass it on to your brother. Finally, my son, I can only ask that you forgive your mother’s moment of weakness, and do not hate me for doing this. I am sorry to put you through this, Jason. Never doubt my love.

Your mother,

Talia’

Jason felt tears welling up in his eyes and dashed them away roughly. The letter crumpled in his slowly tightening fist. His emotions swung wildly from sorrow to fear to anger, ping-ponging back and forth like the puck in an air hockey match. Then, suddenly, the puck slammed into a goal, the only one it ever seemed to any more. Jason clenched his teeth, focused on breathing. He grabbed the burner phone he had just been given and called the preset number marked only as ‘T’. It rang. And rang. And finally went to a dial tone. Jason had barely enough presence of mind to put the phone and letter down before he crushed them. He looked up at Damian, who looked despondent, and Mara, who was watching him nervously. He bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile and said, “I’m going to go into my room. Don’t open the door.”

He closed and locked the door, sliding one of the dressers in front of it, just in case. Then he let out an abrupt roar of rage and pain and threw a lamp across the room. “Fucking damn it all to hell!” That stupid bitch. No, the other part of him said, Mom. While she had called him ‘son’ many times, she had never explicitly referred to herself as his mother. It was a seemingly unimportant distinction, but it meant so much to Jason. But why did she have to do it when he was trying to be furious with her?! The other dresser was knocked over with a crash, scattering clothing on the floor from a duffel back that had been on top of it -- they hadn’t bothered to unpack, needing to be able to leave at any time. The mental folder he so carefully kept closed and marked with ‘NEVER’ for a fucking reason flew open, hurt and betrayal and that oh-so-familiar laughing filling his mind. He sank to the floor, wishing for the rage to take him completely. Longing, for once, for the emptiness and simplicity the green whirlpool gave him. Better mindless rage than this...this... whatever it was. But the all-consuming fury didn’t come because of course it didn’t. Able to fall into a Pit Rage any time except when he wanted to because why the fuck not. Robbed even that, Jason was left drowning in a torrent of emotions he had no idea how to deal with.

A timid knock at the door brought him out of his daze. “Akhi?” a hesitant voice called.

Damian.

Jason gritted his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut as he used all of his strength and training to push the emotions back, to force them into a padlocked box. He inhaled shakily and stood up, an impassive expression settling on his face. Two steps and a shove to the dresser allowed him to open the door and see Damian’s worried face. Mara stood a few steps back, her hand drifting towards where he knew she kept her knives. Jason didn’t even try to smile, knowing nothing good would come from it.

“Are- are you well?” Damian asked anxiously. Jason’s features softened slightly.

“I’ll be fine, kiddo,” he said, his voice steady. Damian relaxed. “We do have a problem, though.” He tensed back up. Jason rubbed a hand over his face. “Your mother did something I really wish she hadn’t done.”

Damian looked startled and a tad worried. “...my mother?”

Jason blinked at him for a moment before realizing his mistake. While he didn’t call Talia mom, he always made sure Damian knew that he viewed her that way. “Sorry, Dami. Our mother, of course. I’m just a bit upset with her at the moment.” He pinched his nose.

“What did Mistress Talia do?” Mara asked.

“She-” he sighed. “She left hints for Batman, telling him where we were. She thinks we wouldn’t be safe enough staying here on our own.”

Damian brightened. “Father is coming here?”

“Yeah, probably as we speak.”

“You are not happy about this?” Mara asked cautiously. “Is the Batman not your father as well?” Damian had mentioned that a few times, on top of the whispered gossip she had heard.

No,” Jason snapped. He instantly regretted it as Mara flinched back. He forced his voice to soften. “Sorry. It’s a sore subject.”

Damian opened his mouth, doubtless to ask questions, but Jason cut him off. “It’s not important right now. What is important is that Batman is probably on his way here right now with who-knows how many of his associates,” he couldn’t help how he spat the last word like poison, “so we need to be ready to defend ourselves.”

“Defend ourselves? Surely my father would not-”

“You father is not aware that you exist,” Jason pointed out sharply. “All that he knows is that we’re with Talia, which is not a point in our favor, trust me.” He walked back to his bedroom door and looked back. “Arm yourselves quickly and wear your uniforms, they have the most armor. Careful, Mara. There’s some glass on the floor.”

In less than five minutes the three of them were clustered against the living room wall where the couch normally stood -- Jason had shoved it to block the door and repositioned the armchairs to get in the way of anybody coming through the bedrooms. Jason could feel the tension ratcheting up in the room as the light of the sun slowly waned. Mara was tense and silent by his side, forcing her body to be loose so that she could move quickly. Damian was confused and uncomfortable with the whole situation, if the way he was standing was any indication. His grip on his katana was tighter than it normally would be and if it was any other situation Jason would have forced him to correct it. As it was, he just shot the boy what he hoped was an encouraging look and adjusted his grip on his specially-crafted handgun, taking a moment to be thankful his fingers had healed over the past three days.

“Don’t attack unless I do first,” he murmured quietly, knowing they would hear him. “We want to get out of this peacefully if possible.” To that end, he ran through one of the meditation exercises Ducra had taught him, one of the ones that didn’t require more than two minutes, closed eyes, or strange positions. He forced himself to get into the persona of a Dark Angel. It did not matter what he was feeling right now, his only objective was to get his charges out of the dangerous situation safely by any means necessary. Even if those means were putting them in the hold of a man he hated with every fiber of his being. His breathing evened out, his eyes grew cold, and his mind calmed. It was a strange feeling, but not an unwelcome one. Dark Angels did not experience confusion or confliction, they knew their role and they executed it.

A shadow flickered against the windows and Jason unsheathed his flame dagger from the sheath on his thigh. “Ready,” he warned his young companions.

A moment of agonizing stillness passed before the windows shattered with a crash and smoke filled the room. Jason held his arm steady, not blinking as several shadows appeared through the smoke. As the synthetic fog cleared -- thanks to the several large, newly-destroyed windows -- Jason came face-to-gun-barrel with the last person in the world he wanted to see.

Batman.

Chapter Text

Bruce sighed and rubbed his temples discreetly as he glanced around the cave. It was empty -- Tim had gone upstairs after much complaining once Bruce threatened to make him repeat eleventh grade -- and the only sounds were the chittering of the bats and the steady whooshing of the waterfall that powered his computers. The man leaned back in his chair and looked up at his monitor, the light reflecting off the deep bags beneath his eyes.

There was something about this case that made him uneasy. It was more than just Talia’s involvement, though that alone was enough to make him wary. If he could just put his finger on the problem.... Bruce sighed again as he leaned back over his keyboard, pulling up the pictures that Barbara had managed to find. The man steepled his fingers and tapped them against his lips as he scrutinized the images. It was unmistakably Talia, even though she had lightened her skin tone slightly and had her hair styled differently. The disguise would have fooled no member of the League and it certainly didn’t fool Bruce -- even Stephanie had been able to see past it! -- so the question was, why did she bother? Perhaps to blend in with her companions? Their coloration certainly matched, and the two younger children had similar features to Talia…. Bruce stared at the children, the uneasy feeling rising higher in his stomach. ...It could be possible...and he had to consider all the options, no matter how...distasteful or uncomfortable they were….

If the children were indeed...hers...it would explain the presence of the young man, the way his eyes were constantly following one or the other. The way he stood, even in the frozen moments, attested to at least a modicum of the skill necessary to be a bodyguard. But even he had passing similarities to the other three, a thought which was considerably more unpalatable than even the one that preceded it. Bruce’s brain did the math without his permission, and his bare fists tightened on the desk -- he had removed the suit after patrol and was now in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Talia could not have a child of that age, could she? He had to be around twenty, which would place him at about ten or eleven when he and Talia had last…been on good terms. Surely she would have told him something so important?

But then again, it was Talia. If he was being honest, he did not know what she would or wouldn’t tell him. Not to mention there was something else about the young man, something familiar. It was possible that it was one of the assassins that he occasionally had to drive out of Gotham, but he usually never got a look at their faces. The young man’s features were ambiguous enough that nailing down an ethnicity was hard enough, let alone a solid identification. The little niggling feeling at the back of his mind kept him awake, even after he had abandoned the Cave for his bed upstairs, and he stared at the ceiling, wondering what the connections were.


The gun was pointed directly between his eyes and Batman knew that from this distance nothing could stop the bullet from driving into his brain. He very carefully did not move, instinctively knowing that any motion could set the man off. It wasn’t a position he wanted to be in, not a position he would have allowed himself to remain in, if this had been a normal fight against thugs. But there was something strange going on here and Batman wanted to get out of this without violence, if possible. Not to mention the young man in front of him was certainly not a thug. It was more obvious now, than in the still-shots, the way he stood, like a predator poised to strike, the way his eyes glinted with a dangerous light that dared someone to attack him.

Batman could see Nightwing out of the corner of his eye. The young man was tense, hands gripping his escrima sticks but not attacking. Black Bat stood calmly on his other side. He wondered what she saw that made her look so relaxed -- though that could be a ruse. Batgirl and Robin appeared in the bedroom doorways, poised for battle. No one moved in the apartment. Underneath the cowl, Batman’s eyes flicked over to the two children, who were also standing at the ready, blades drawn, grips and stances showing they knew how to use them.

“Where’s Talia?” Batman growled, using his most intimidating voice and glaring into the young man’s eyes. Eyes that so perfectly matched Talia’s poisonous green ones.

“Gone,” the assassin said flatly.

“Where?”

“We do not know.”

Batman gritted his teeth slightly at the emotionless answers. He would think he was being lied to, if the young man's eyes did not stare so steadily into his own.

“Why did she leave you here?”

“She wished for us to meet.” For the first time a flicker of emotion flashed across the assassin’s face; intense dislike, bordering on loathing, but it was gone in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, Batman hadn’t blinked. There was something here, something deeper than the normal disgust and anger that all of the League had for him and his. Robin sometimes joked that it was in their list of prerequisites, right alongside fanatical loyalty and a lack of morals.

“That is why she allowed herself to be caught on camera and gave us your apartment number?” he asked, shaking away the memory.

The emotionlessness was back as the assassin answered, “Yes. She warned us you were coming.”

“Why did she want us to meet?” The niggling feeling of familiarity was back stronger than ever and Batman carefully analyzed the face in front of him. There was something about his facial structure, the way his eyes had blazed in that brief second that struck a chord within him. But he could make nothing more concrete out of it and so pushed it to the side, focusing on the more immediate situation.

“Ra’s is pursuing us. She went to lay down false trails. She did not believe they”, he gestured at the children standing on either side of him, “would be safe here and wished for us to join together to protect them.”

Batman blinked, momentarily stunned. Now this he had not anticipated. “And why was she so sure we would not throw you out, leave you to Ra’s?”

The young man snorted derisively, the second emotion to appear and just as quickly disappear. “You would not leave us to Ra’s, even if you removed us from Gotham or arrested us.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.” The assassin was breathing steadily, but Batman got the feeling he was steeling himself. A beat of silence, then:

“She knew you would protect your family from Ra’s’ hand.”

There was a moment where this did not answer Batman’s question and he almost felt like asking what his protectiveness of his family had to do with anything. Then his eyes fell slowly down to the boy standing on the young man’s left side. The pieces of the puzzle clicked, the connections finally became clear, and it showed a picture that Batman very much did not want to see. His eyes widened without his consent and he very nearly lost control of himself. Any lingering thoughts about the assassin’s identity were instantly buried. Bruce was reeling, trying to grasp onto anything that made sense, while Batman studied the boy, compared his features to his own, and found too many of them matching for his conclusion to be anything but the truth. For a brief moment he sorely wished he had read Talia’s letter before coming in, possibility of traps be damned. How did I miss it? he thought. The answer came quickly, Because you didn’t want to see. A low gasp from behind him showed that Timothy, always so quick on the uptake, understood as well.

The assassin’s face remained carefully blank as he put away his knife and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, confirming Batman’s fear and Bruce Wayne’s hope-streaked horror with a single sentence. “Damian, meet your father. Bruce Wayne.”


As soon as the damning words crossed his lips, Jason wished he could snatch them back. But it was too late, and now Batman would never stop hunting them, no matter Talia’s pretty words about keeping their family together, going back to the way things had been for such a short, wonderful time. Damn you, Talia. But the logical part of his mind knew that there had been no good option here. Talia was right that the four of them were too distinctive to all go together, and Batman would likely not allow them to stay in Gotham if he didn’t have the motivation of knowing Damian was his son. He was a formidable fighter, but not even a Dark Angel could stand against all of Ra’s’ forces on his own.

All the same, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

It was getting harder and harder to keep himself in the mindset of a Dark Angel, to repress the feelings that rose in his chest at the sight of those pointed ears and whited-out eyes. He wanted to scream; he wanted to throw himself at the man who had betrayed him and pound him into the ground; he wanted to run away to someplace hot and sit out in the sun with his family and forget about Gotham and men dressed like nocturnal animals. But he couldn't do any of that. He had to protect his little siblings -- with a flash of realization he accepted that the designation applied to Mara as well as it did to Damian -- and if that meant not pulling the trigger like he so sorely wanted to, then so be it.

There was another battle going on with his feelings as well, because Murphy’s Law or some shit. On one hand, he was relieved that Bruce obviously didn’t recognize him. That would make things easier hopefully, though he had no delusions that the man wouldn’t figure it out sooner or later. Even now, he had caught the man staring at him, the slight tilt to his head that he always had when he was analyzing something giving him away. A smaller part of him, the part he worked so hard to crush, was crying and begging his dad to realize that he was standing right there. Jason ruthlessly squashed the feeling. It was easier to do in this state, where his emotions seemed dull and strangely distant. But the feeling was like a cockroach, feebly waving its legs long after it should have given up and succumbed to death. Still, he forced himself to not make anyone look at him twice, pointedly not mentioning that Talia had wanted him protected as well.

It felt like hours had passed as silence reigned and Batman stared at Damian with the closest thing to blind shock Jason had ever seen on him, but it couldn’t have been more than a moment because right then Damian stepped forward a little bit -- though he still remained close to Jason -- and said, “Hello, Father.”

There was a beat of shocked silence. Jason glanced around the room. Batman himself hadn’t moved, the dumbfounded expression firmly in place; Nightwing had straightened out of his ready position, his face a picture of shock; Batgirl broke the silence by loudly saying, “Wait, what?!”; the girl covered in black did not react, which was somehow more unnerving than if she had; and Jason was very carefully ignoring the other person in the room. He couldn’t trust himself to see the kid in those colors and not outright murder him. Strange, how the things you thought you were past can pop up into your life and wreak havoc.

“You do not need to do much,” he said, with a calm he did not feel. “We can remain here. All we request is that you inform us if Ra’s comes near the city and help us fight him off if necessary.”

Before he had even finished his sentence, Batman was shaking his head. “No. You are coming back with us.”

Jason’s jaw tightened but he took a calming breath, refusing to surrender control to the Pit. It’s for Damian and Mara. As long as he could remember why he was here, why he was doing this, he could control himself.

There was a moment’s pause before Batman wrenched his eyes away from Damian and looked at Mara. “Is she…?”

“No.”

Jason couldn’t tell if Batman’s body language read disappointed or relieved. Maybe both.

“Mara is my cousin, Father,” Damian piped up. He was looking up at Batman with a combination of anxiousness, hope, and excitement on his face. Jason did not dare close his eyes in frustration, but he wanted to.

There was another moment of silence where Batman just stared at Damian. His jaw worked a bit, actually showing his discomfort for once. “We need to get back to the Cave,” he said abruptly, waving a hand. Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl stowed their weapons, though they continued to eye the three of them cautiously.  Damian made to sheathe his katana, but Jason’s hand stopped him.

“And if we refuse?” he asked smoothly, staring into Batman’s covered eyes. The man’s mouth thinned and his partners immediately tensed, except for the girl in black, who didn’t seem concerned.

“You will be coming with us. One way or another,” Batman growled.

Jason’s eyes narrowed dangerously and his grip on his gun, which was still trained on Batman’s face, tightened. Logically, he knew this wasn’t smart, he always knew they’d end up going back to the Cave. But Jason had always felt his emotions strongly and now was no exception, even as he forced himself to ignore them as much as possible.

“You said yourself that you are here for our protection,” the kid he was trying to ignore cut in. “You’ll be much safer if you’re with us.” Jason refused to look at the kid, cursing him in his mind. He didn’t seem to notice the increasing tension in Jason’s shoulders, as he took a step forward and continued, “You’re a bodyguard, right? Don't you have to follow Talia’s orders? And she ordered you to work with us?”

“Unless you want another kid dying in those colors,” Jason said to Batman, “I suggest you tell him to back off.” Now that made the tension in the room skyrocket. Jason ignored it as best he could, silently thanking whoever might be listening as Nightwing pulled the kid backwards, out of his direct sightline. “My job is to protect these kids no matter what. If that means going against Talia’s orders, then I go against Talia’s orders.”

Damian looked at him in confusion. “Akhi,” he said quietly. “What are you doing?” Jason finally broke his staring contest with Batman, looking at Damian for a long moment and ignoring the way Batman’s head jerked a little at the Arabic word.

“You want this,” Jason said flatly. It wasn’t a question, but Damian nodded anyway. Jason glanced at Mara and raised an eyebrow. She stared back steadily, the tenseness in her body betraying her feelings on the matter. Jason closed his eyes for a heartbeat, hastily repeating his quick meditation technique, and then looked back at Batman. “Fine. We’ll go with you.” He stuck his gun back in its holster and narrowed his eyes threateningly. “But if I think they are in danger for any reason, I will kill every single one of you.”

Should he have said that? Probably not. But it made him feel a bit better, to see how Batgirl, at least, blanched at the threat.


Mara watched carefully as Jason tried to hide the tension that was running through his body. It was obvious he didn’t trust the Batman and his associates, so she wouldn’t either. She wasn’t sure why Damian was not picking up on his brother’s obvious discomfort but his lack of attention was clearly visible. She snorted quietly. If Damian had been this distracted in any of their training sessions, she would have beaten him in an instant. In fact, any other League teacher would have already sprung a surprise attack, both to remind and to punish. Jason wasn’t like the others though. She had realized this on the very first training session she had with him, when she had missed one of the targets during her most difficult knife kata and instead of hitting her or yelling at her, he had congratulated her for hitting all but one and pointed out where her mistake was, demonstrating and walking her through it until she could perform it flawlessly.

Some would say this was weakness, but they had clearly never met Jason. She had seen him in action, once, when she and Damian had their first mission together and it had gone wrong. He had appeared as though from the aether and torn his way through their opponents with the speed of a falcon and with blades just as sharp. It was in that moment, as he turned towards her and Damian, knives dripping blood and eyes glowing an unearthly green, that Mara had realized just how dangerous her teacher was. She had had barely any time to be afraid, though, because he had immediately dropped to his knees, checking them for injuries and asking if they were alright. At first she had assumed that it was only Damian he was worried for; he was not, after all, her Dark Angel, she was not important enough for such distinction. But then he had turned to her and asked her if she was injured and she had frozen to the spot because no one had ever looked at her like that before. Like she was something that mattered. Like she was someone just as important and worth protecting as her cousin.

It was not difficult to forget how terrifying he could be, when he was dragging them off for ice cream or ordering them to play together; nor was it hard to think that the look had been a fluke, leftover emotion from checking on Damian. But then he had saved her from her grandfather’s wrath at the expense of his own skin, and he had never once seemed to regret it. He had stared at Ra’s with the same look she had seen on that day, unwavering fury and defiance -- though it had been quieter, hidden under pretended respect --, and it made a warm feeling rise in her chest. She had begun to work harder to please him, to make him grin at her and ruffle her hair, praise her for her accomplishments, though her fear of her grandfather had certainly complicated the matter. It was dangerous to be so attached, she knew, weakness to be so desperate to please. But then again, Jason made no efforts to hide how attached he was to Damian and Mistress Talia, and he had freely admitted to her and Damian that he tried hard to make the woman happy, so perhaps it was not as bad as her other teachers had made it out to be.

Mara was brought out of her thoughts -- scolding herself fiercely for allowing herself to fall into the same trap as Damian -- by their arrival in front of the most amazing vehicle she had ever seen. The black surface glinted a bit in the sun’s last rays and it looked like someone had joined a sports car and a tank, a combination she had not even thought possible. Jason’s steps faltered slightly when it came into view and Mara turned to look up at him. “Is this the one you stole the tires off of?” she asked quietly. It was an unspoken rule not to ask Jason anything about his past, but this was the one story that he had told them, how he met the Batman.

Jason’s face did a funny sort of spasm and he grimaced slightly as he looked at the car. “Nah. This’s at least five upgrades away from that one.”

“Ah.” Mara didn’t say anything more, only hoisted her duffel back higher over her shoulder and climbed in the back with Damian when she was told to. There was an awkward moment where Batman, Jason, and Robin all simultaneously realized that Jason couldn’t possibly fit in the small backseat, so Mara ended up squished between Damian and Robin, a situation she was not pleased with. Jason gave both her and Damian a look that clearly said ‘don’t stab anybody’ before stiffly sitting in the passenger seat.

The ride back to the Batman’s base was tense and silent. Batman appeared to stare straight ahead but Mara thought it likely that he looked at them all through his mirrors often, if the way his hands tightened intermittently on the steering wheel was any indication. Damian was pushing at her, trying to get her to move away, but she would take her cousin’s wrath over pushing into an unknown quantity’s space any day. It was clear the back seat had only been designed for two people and even though she and Damian were small, she was still touching far more of Robin than she would like. And his cape kept brushing against her arm and making her jump.

She glanced out the window as a flash of blue went by and watched as Nightwing paused to grin and wave at the car before revving his engine and zooming ahead of them, out of sight.


Batman felt the shock slowly wearing away, to be replaced by a flame of rage that slowly grew the more he thought about the situation he had been plunged into. He’d have to run several tests before he would let himself believe it completely, but everything pointed towards the boy -- Damian -- being his son. His biological son who had clearly been raised in the League. His son who was kept from him by the woman he had once loved. The one who had told him that their child had died. One of the most painful moments of his life, right up there with a dark alley and a burning warehouse, and now he was finding out that it was a lie?! He was very glad that Nightwing had volunteered to fill Oracle and Agent A in on the situation; he didn’t think he could speak coherently right then, at least not without yelling. His hands creaked on the steering wheel as his fists tightened. The bodyguard -- he still had not gotten a name, which would have concerned him more if he hadn’t just had the foundation of his world rocked -- glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, his body held tense and ready for anything. Batman -- for he was still Batman, he had to remember that -- forced himself to loosen his grip and take a deep breath. He was Batman, he could handle this.

Yes, but can Bruce Wayne? a small voice wondered in the back of his mind. He had learned many times that being Bruce was often more important to his children than being Batman. Being a father rather than just a partner and mentor. But he didn’t know if Bruce Wayne could do that. He had just barely been getting to that point with Tim and Cass and he had been terrified the whole time. He was so lucky that Tim had started out not expecting him to be a father, allowing them to get used to each other and grow closer gradually -- Cass was the same, though simultaneously easier as he didn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing and driving her away.

There was no such transition period here. If Damian was indeed his son, there was no way he would allow Talia to take him again, no matter how difficult it might be. Batman wondered for a moment what the bodyguard would have to say about that but dismissed it as unimportant. If worse came to worst and the young man attacked, he was sure he could defeat him, if not alone than definitely with his partners. He wasn’t concerned about showing his base to them; seeing how the bodyguard already knew his real name, he doubted there was much Talia hadn’t told them. Right now he forced himself to compartmentalize, focus on getting the facts before anything else.

He pulled into the Cave and was greeted by the welcome sight of Alfred standing at the ready. Bruce tried not to let his relief show on his face, but Alfred could always see right through him and paused to give him a rare pat on the shoulder and encouraging nod. Bruce took another, settling breath and turned to watch the other four occupants climb out of the Batmobile. The bodyguard’s eyes flicked around the Cave quickly, but he didn’t seem surprised by anything within, adding credibility to his theory that the bodyguard, at least, knew most of what Talia did. If the young man was masking his true feelings, he was doing an excellent job. Robin climbed out next, then Mara -- who apparently was his niece or something similar -- and, finally, Damian. Bruce glanced sideways at Alfred’s quick intake of breath and quiet, “Good Lord.” The butler actually looked rather shaken, although he was quickly settling back to his usual impassive expression.

“Well, Master Bruce, there hardly seems to be need for a DNA test; he looks precisely as you did at that age, if a bit darker.”

Bruce grimaced. “Yes. All the same-”

“Of course. If you three would follow me, Master Damian, Miss Mara, Mister…?” he paused, raising an eyebrow at the towering bodyguard.

“It does not matter who I am,” he said in that same, strange, flat tone that did nothing to help Batman determine an ethnicity. He looked shaken though, his eyes slightly wider than normal, and was it a trick of the light that made his eyes look slightly bluer than before? Bruce took a step to follow them towards the medbay and the assassin turned his head towards him so quickly Bruce thought he would give himself whiplash. There was no hint of blue in those eyes, just a warning. He did not miss the way the bodyguard’s hand hovered over his holsters and carefully made his body language as non-threatening as possible, considering the circumstances. The young man seemed to be restraining himself at the moment, but who knew when that would change or which side his son and niece would take? Both Batman and Bruce wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

“I’m afraid that simply won’t do,” Alfred said calmly, leading the way to the gurneys. “You must have something we can call you by.” The young man’s defensive stance softened slightly. Thank God for Alfred.

He hesitated for a moment before saying, “You may call me prizrak.”

Bruce frowned thoughtfully. The Russian word for ghost? That could not possibly be his real name. It could be a League-given name, like Shiva. But somehow he doubted it. The sharp looks Damian and Mara gave the newly-dubbed Prizrak seemed to confirm his suspicion, but neither of them said anything.

“Very well, Mister Prizrak. Now, if you would all be so good as to allow me a little blood….”

Damian and Mara let their blood to be drawn without complaint and Prizrak caved after a few minutes, a strangely defeated expression passing over his face before disappearing again. Bruce carried the samples over to the computer, where the rest of the family was standing in a huddle.

“Tim.” He held out the vials, abruptly unable to say anything further.

“On it,” Tim said, taking the vials and turning to the computer.

“So we’re going with real names?” Dick asked.

Bruce inclined his head. “They already knew my name, it stands to reason they know the rest of yours. Not much point in hiding it at this point, not if they’re going to be staying with us.” Facts. Focus on the facts.

“Should we get changed, then?” Steph piped up. “We all know you’re going to ask them a bunch of questions; it’ll be better if it doesn’t seem like an interrogation.”

Bruce considered that for a moment before nodding decisively. “Yes. Go get cleaned up.”

“Don’t you dare start without us,” Dick warned, carefully peeling off his mask.

Bruce grunted and waved them off, turning back to where Damian, Mara, and Prizrak stood. He made sure to keep an eye on Prizrak as he drew closer, keeping his arms and hands loose at his sides. The bodyguard eyed him carefully but didn’t react as he stopped about a foot away. Bruce went down on one knee and pulled back his cowl, externally shedding the persona he had been struggling to remain in for the past several minutes as he came eye-to-eye with...his son. “Hello, Damian.”

“Father,” Damian replied, inclining his head respectfully.

Bruce’s breath caught in his throat a little, a tiny flicker of joy tempering the rage. He chose his words carefully, not wanting to make a wrong move that could result in a fight. “I’d like to ask you all a few questions, just to figure out what’s going on, if that’s ok with you?”

“Of course, Father.”

Bruce nodded and stood up. “We have a table set up for meetings just over here. As soon as the others finish, we can get started.” He studied the three newcomers for a moment before adding, “They will all be in civilian wear and without weapons. If you could all do the same it would be...appreciated.”

“As you wish, Father,” Damian said, at the exact same time Prizrak spat, “Not a chance in hell.” They stared at each other for a moment. Mara glanced at Bruce and Damian before looking up to her bodyguard with a questioning look.

Prizrak stared with narrowed eyes at Damian for several long seconds before folding his arms. “You can if you want to, but leave your gear with me.”

Damian nodded and Bruce pointed him towards the lockers. The boy started walking away but Prizrak grabbed him by the arm and pulled him close, bending down to whisper something in his ear. Bruce couldn’t hear what he said, but Damian nodded firmly and marched off towards the lockers. There was a pause before the bodyguard looked down at Mara. “You can do the same, if you want. Those uniforms are great for missions but they’re not the most comfortable to sit around in.”

“Are you keeping your armor?” she asked quietly.

Prizrak snorted, “Of course. But I’m here to protect you. Do whatever makes you more comfortable.” She nodded slowly and walked cautiously towards the door Damian had already disappeared through.

Bruce breathed in slowly. Now for the hard part. “I would ask that you give up your guns for the duration of your stay here.”

“You would be disappointed then,” the assassin said carelessly, not taking his eyes off the locker room door.

A frisson of frustration shot through him, but he pushed it aside. Diplomacy was the best bet for peace at the moment, and the peace he would retain, at least until he knew what side his son and niece would take. “Then will you at least agree not to use them here? I’m sure you can manage without them,” he tacked on dryly.

Prizrak turned his head slightly to eye him. “I will do what I deem is necessary to protect my- charges.” Bruce wondered what word the young man had cut off. It seemed a good segue into his next question.

“Damian called you Akhi.”

“He did.”

“Why?”

Prizrak fingered the hilt of his knife, staring towards the wall once more. “Because it is the truth.”

“But not Shaqiq?”

The young man did not get the chance to answer the question -- though Bruce had a feeling he wouldn’t have anyway -- because Mara and Damian came hurrying back, followed a moment later by the rest of the family. Bruce scanned them all and nodded his approval. They were all decked out in their normal cave wear -- mostly consisting of sweatpants and tank tops --, maskless, and without any obvious weapons. Bruce had no doubt that Tim, at least, had kept a few smoke-pellets on his person, but he also knew that the teenager wouldn’t attack unless absolutely necessary. Smoke-pellets weren’t really a weapon anyway. He gestured towards the conference table and the group moved over to it silently. The air felt abruptly more heavy, no one saying a word as they took their seats. Bruce saw Damian angling for the seat on his right, but Prizrak snagged the boy’s collar and dragged him off to the other side of the table, Mara following obediently.

Bruce cleared his throat, nervous energy both begging him to move and freezing him to the spot. Alfred -- who had for once joined the rest of them at the table -- nodded slightly at him and he found his voice again. “Well, let’s get started.”

With any luck, this evening wouldn’t bring about too many more surprises.

Chapter Text

Jason eyed the table of vigilantes warily. He could feel his muscles screaming from being held so tense for so long, but he couldn’t help it. He could feel the oncoming Pit Attack, like a tickle at the back of his throat, but there wasn’t much he could do about it except shove his feelings as far down as possible. He really needed to get somewhere he felt safe enough to meditate, somewhere he could sort and work through his feelings; or at least shove them in a box with a stronger lock. Unfortunately for his sanity, this place was definitely not safe enough for him to do that. Someone shifted and his gaze instantly pinned them in place, analyzing any movement for threats. Figures the one time he felt like being mature and responsible about his feelings -- relatively speaking -- was the one time he couldn't afford to do so.

Bruce -- and oh how he wished the man had kept the damn cowl on -- cleared his throat awkwardly. If it was any other situation, any other person, Jason might have smirked and made some smartass comment, but as it was he just stared at the man, his fingers brushing against the hilt of his flame dagger for comfort. Being the only person at the table in armor -- except for Bruce who was still in uniform sans cowl and gloves -- did not make him feel more comfortable. Well, it did a little, but that relief was countered by the fact that he stuck out pretty obviously, which was not a good thing when trying to avoid attention. But he’d rather attract attention than leave himself -- and therefore the brats -- unprotected.

Jason quickly ran through his mental list of what he would and wouldn’t tell them. Basically it boiled down to ‘give them just enough so that they don’t attack’. He could see Bruce getting ready to ask his first question and braced himself for any number of queries about the League -- those he would be happy to answer -- and themselves -- not so much.

“How old are you, Damian?”

Damian seemed surprised by the question but he dutifully answered. Jason realized that he hadn’t had a chance to fill the brats in on his information plan. Shit. “I am eight years and nine months old. My birthday is August 15th.”

Jason could see Bruce’s anger leaking through the tight-lipped smile he gave the boy. It wasn’t directed at Damian, he knew, but Damian probably didn’t. He bristled. If that bastard did anything to hurt Damian….

Perhaps Dick noticed Bruce’s predicament, maybe he was just curious; either way, he spoke up. “And how are you related to Damian, Mara?”

Mara blinked, looking startled at being addressed at all. She glanced at Jason quickly before saying, “My father was Mistress Talia’s half-brother.”

Timothy Drake -- Jason was actually happy that he had taken off his uniform -- frowned thoughtfully. “I didn’t know Talia had a brother.”

“He was disinherited,” Mara said stiffly, staring straight ahead and not making eye contact with anyone. “He was deformed and therefore unfit to bear the al Ghul name until he regained his honor by giving up his life to my grandfather.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Oh,” Dick said weakly. “Well...you and Damian seem close?”

“We were not, not before-” she cut herself off and amended, "Prizrak came.”

“Is he more than a bodyguard, then?” Batgirl -- what was her name? Sadie? Samantha? -- asked curiously.

Damian nodded imperiously. “Obviously. He is our instructor, my Dark Angel, and my brother.” Jason winced. Obviously Damian hadn’t gotten the memo to keep their true relationship secret.

“Wait, like, actual brother? Or like, like-a-brother-but-not-actually-family?”

Jason closed his eyes briefly in supplication. Of course she had to bring that up. Of course. As if things weren’t going wrong enough as it was. As expected, Damian bristled immediately.

“How dare you doubt the truth of my words, harlot!”

Eyes shot wide around the table but before anyone had a chance to say anything, Jason’s hand shot out and smacked the back of Damian’s head. He jerked forward in surprise, shooting a betrayed look at his older brother that swiftly turned into a glare. Jason just raised an eyebrow.

After a moment of staring at each other Damian turned stiffly back to the table, his cheeks red, and said, “He is my brother. My mother gave him life and my father-”

Jason cleared his throat sharply and Damian faltered.

“Your father...what?” Bruce asked, eyes narrowed.

“I meant to say my grandfather,” Damian corrected hastily. “My grandfather trained him.”

Jason sighed internally. So much for keeping people’s attention off of him. Now the entire table was staring at him either suspiciously or curiously or both. Bruce was obviously thinking hard and Jason figured that he might as well surrender to the inevitable. But he had always been stubborn and he certainly wasn’t going to make it easy for them.

“...Aaanyway,” Dick said after another long moment of silence, “what brings you to Gotham?”

“Ra’s is hunting us,” Jason said flatly.

“Well, yes, you said that, but why?”

“Because the League does not take it kindly when its members defect.”

“Talia defected from the League?” Bruce asked, sounding stunned.

Jason smirked a bit. He couldn’t help it, this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. “Yes. She tends to be willing to go to great lengths for those she loves.”

The tense silence was broken when Batgirl stage-whispered to Drake, “Is it just me or did it just get ten degrees cooler in here?”

Steph,” Tim hissed back and oh, that was her name. Jason smirked a bit more openly. Dick was looking back and forth between Bruce and Jason, seeming torn between anger and worry.

Akhi,” Damian hissed. “Mother loves Father still.”

“Eh, debatable.” Jason didn’t bother to keep his voice down, knowing that it didn’t matter how much they whispered, they were surrounded by vigilantes whose job was eavesdropping. Besides, what Bruce didn’t hear, couldn’t hurt him. And he wanted to hurt him. He cringed as he abruptly remembered who he was talking to. Damian was staring up at him with huge eyes. Jason stared back, his own eyes wide with horror.

“Fuck. I mean, crap! Dami, I didn’t mean- Of course they- I-” Jason floundered helplessly and holy shit were those tears welling up in his baby brother’s eyes? “Shit, Dami, it’s ok. I didn’t mean that.” Yes, he did. But dammit, he knew how much Damian hoped for his parents to be happy together. He rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s complicated, ok?”

But Damian wasn’t looking at him anymore. He had faced forward once again, his teeth clenched and eyes shiny. Jason glanced around the table and winced at the disapproving look he was getting from Alfred -- the others looked just as upset but he didn’t care about them. The old man’s very presence had thrown him for a loop, almost made him lose all of his mental walls. As terrible as it sounded, Jason had almost forgotten about Alfred, forcing the memories down to make the separation less painful. But he didn’t have time to think about that right now, he had to try and fix this. “Dami?” The boy ignored him and Jason slid down slightly in his seat, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“What else would you like to know, Father?” Damian asked stiffly.

Bruce seemed to be considering, his emotions firmly locked away. “Even before we got your mother’s message we suspected someone from the League was in Gotham. We had a supposed crime scene where any biological matter was completely wiped away. Would you know anything about that?”

Jason and Mara both winced simultaneously. Dear God, Talia’s never going to let me forget this.

“I believe that question could best be answered by Mara or my brother,” Damian replied through his teeth. Jason took a deep breath and reminded himself that fratricide was frowned upon, even in the League. Mara looked up at him nervously and he grimaced back.

“I- I had run away,” Mara began quietly. “Trying to get back to the League.” Stephanie opened her mouth but Jason shot her such a dangerous look that she shut it without a sound. “One of them found me and attacked before I could explain that I had not chosen to leave.” Mara looked down at her hands. “They almost killed me, I had to have emergency surgery. If J- Prizrak,” she corrected herself hurridly, “hadn’t gotten there when he did I would have died. He saved me.”

Jason kept any comments -- snarky and reassuring both -- to himself.

“What do you mean you didn’t want to leave?” Bruce asked.

“Prizrak kidnapped me,” Mara explained. Jason raised an eyebrow at the phrasing but she just looked up at him and said flatly, “You knocked me out and carried me off to another continent.” Jason hesitated for a moment before shrugging. True.

“What about the lack of DNA?” Drake asked, bringing them back to the main topic.

Jason still avoided looking at him as he answered, “We had to clean up after ourselves. Didn’t originally want you to know we were here.” His tone showed exactly how much he liked the change of plans.

“And the assassin?” Bruce sounded tense, like he knew he wouldn’t like what he was going to hear.

Jason met his eyes cooly. “I took care of it.”

There was a moment of silence as they all digested that, Bruce’s face shutting down as it always did when he was angry and trying to avoid blowing up.

“This topic is irrelevant,” Jason said blandly. “All you must know is that I am here to protect them, you are here to provide extra security, and Damian is your son, as your tests will no doubt prove.”

“Wait a sec, he called you a ‘Dark Angel’. What’s a Dark Angel?” Stephanie blurted.

Damian drew himself upright, a proud look coming over his face. “Dark Angels are the most elite of my grandfather’s warriors. Each heir of the Demon is appointed one. Akhi trained for years to become mine. He is surpassed only by Grandfather’s and Mother’s Dark Angels.”

Jason felt a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth but fought it off, nodding slightly at Damian. In truth, that only considered the ranks of the League, excluding people like Talia and Slade Wilson, but he appreciated the sentiment. The boy smiled back before remembering that he was angry with Jason and turning away.

“If he is your brother,” Drake started, “why doesn’t he have his own Dark Angel? Why did he become one?”

Damian’s face twisted in annoyance. “He does not qualify for the Demon’s Head, much like Mara.”

“Mara qualifies,” Jason reminded Damian. The boy waved him off dismissively.

“Only in the case that I die or choose to pass up the Demon’s Head. The former would never happen while you’re around and why would I do the latter?”

Jason’s eyes narrowed slightly as a thought occurred to him. “I don’t think either of you qualify anymore, actually. Ra’s won’t be quick to let you back.”

Damian blinked, looking momentarily dumbstruck. Jason wondered if this was the first time it actually sunk in that they were not going back to the League. Ever. “Oh, yes, of course. We had not intended to return anyway.” He paused. “But it’s the principle.” Jason smirked for a quick second before suppressing both his amusement and the concern that welled up in him upon seeing Damian’s blank expression. The antsy feeling was growing stronger by the minute and he wasn’t sure what released emotion would do to his already-weakening walls, positive or negative.

Bruce cleared his throat pointedly and Jason forced himself to not flinch. “Damian, you were raised in the League?”

“Yes, Father.”

Jason could see where this was going and it was not a good place. He had to head this off. He cleared his throat loudly, wracking his brain for a way to derail the conversation. “So. Bruce.” Outwardly his stony expression didn’t falter at the strange looks his method of address got him, even though inwardly he was screaming. “What is your plan if and when Ra’s comes?” Bruce was looking at him suspiciously and Jason cheerfully cursed himself six ways to Sunday. At this rate he wouldn’t even have to worry about Damian and Mara giving him away.

“You three will be safe here,” the man replied slowly.

Jason raised an eyebrow -- a trick he had learned from Alfred. “The Demon’s Head has breached your defenses before. What is to say he will not do so again?” He congratulated himself for the distraction; this was, after all, something he did need to know.

“Me,” a mechanized voice said. Jason’s head snapped towards the main computer, where a green mask glowed on the screen. He realized he had drawn his flame dagger and slid it smoothly back into its sheath.

“Oracle,” he said flatly.

“Prizrak,” Oracle replied. “Nice code-name by the way. Any chance you’ll tell us your real one, ‘Ghost’?”

“No.” Jason turned back to the table and stared hard at Bruce. “You believe Gordon to be capable of holding off the League of Assassins with her computers?” He dropped her last name intentionally, a power move to show that not even the Oracle -- who most people had never even heard of -- was not outside his reach. Kind of like how she pointed out that Prizrak was not a real name. Bitch.

“She will certainly be invaluable,” Bruce replied, staring right back with flinty eyes.

Jason tilted his head slightly to one side. “I certainly hope you can do better than a paraplegic with a laptop.” Dick’s face darkened angrily and Jason absently wondered whether he and Babs had gotten together yet.

“This ‘paraplegic with a laptop’ was the reason we were close to finding you even before Talia showed her hand,” Oracle’s voice said and Jason could tell she was pissed even through the modulation.

Jason rolled his head lazily to the side to look at the monitor. “I find that hard to believe.”

In response, pictures popped up on the screen of him and his family. Obviously pulled from security cameras, most of the pictures were in black and white, though one had color -- probably taken from one of Luthor’s or Bruce’s ridiculously expensive security on their buildings, Jason thought scornfully. He studied them and grimaced internally. There were more than he had thought there would be. Had Talia missed them? Or had she purposefully left them there for the Bats to follow?

“I do hope those have been removed from public record,” he said indifferently.

The pictures shrank and moved to the sides of the screen, Barbara Gordon’s head and shoulders replacing the Oracle symbol. “Thanks to my ‘laptop’, yes.” Her eyes were narrowed and her cheeks ever so slightly flushed, clashing with her hair. Jason looked at her blandly, saying nothing, before turning back to the table.

“Again, I hope that is not the extent of your defenses.”

Bruce said stiffly, “We have many fail-safes in place; the Cave will be safe for your charges.”

Jason’s mouth twisted wryly. “I would like to be the judge of that.” There was no way Bruce would show him all of the Cave’s defenses -- that would be suicide -- but he could try, any way. Keep up appearances and all that. Bruce opened his mouth, probably to object, but Jason cut him off, “If I think they will be in danger here, we will leave. If you want to be around your son, I suggest you convince me.” The man’s jaw tightened, but he stood up. Jason rose easily, feeling smug and trying not to let it show.

The ensuing tour of a few of the Cave’s defense systems didn’t reveal anything Jason didn’t already know, but it did give him the opportunity to scope out the differences that had accumulated over time and make note of any possible breaches. It was also extremely awkward, with the rest of the vigilantes trailing along behind them. Jason felt his nerves growing more and more fragile as he took in the place that held his childhood memories. Or was it adolescent memories? Eh, whatever. The important thing was that by the time they returned to the main part of the cave, in front of the computer, he was seriously antsy. His fingers started tapping erratically on his thigh, a nervous habit he had struggled to break until one teacher had done it for him. Literally. His hand stilled at the remembered pain and he clenched his fist instead.

Bruce was looking at him, arms folded. “Your assessment?” he asked dryly.

Jason was tempted to say it was absolutely unacceptable, he really was. But he reminded himself that Damian and Mara would be safer here. From Ra’s, at least. He folded his arms right back at Bruce. “Alone, the defenses I’ve seen are not exactly impressive. Factoring in the plethora of other security you neglected to show me, it will likely be adequate. For now.”

The tense silence following this statement was broken by the computer dinging. All eyes swiveled over to the monitor, where the DNA results showed that Damian shared fifty percent of his DNA with Bruce and fifty percent with Talia.

“Congrats, Bruce,” Dick said, a funny note to his voice. “It’s a boy.”


Bruce stared at the test result, his eyes wide. Obviously, he had been preparing himself for this ever since meeting the boy, but there was something...different about accepting the possibility or even likelihood and seeing positive confirmation. A few moments passed before he was snapped abruptly out of his daze by a sound that haunted his nightmares. He whirled around, hand automatically grabbing a batarang and holding it ready to throw. Dick was standing, frozen mid-stride, a few steps away from Damian, his arms partly raised -- planning to give Damian a hug or a high-five or clap him on the shoulder, Bruce guessed. Prizrak was standing a few feet behind the boy, his eyes cold, bordering on lifeless, his handgun still pointing at Dick. Bruce was frozen, his eyes flicking up and down his eldest son for any sign of injury. The twenty-five-year-old didn’t seem hurt, but that didn’t do anything to stop the fear that was still running through Bruce’s veins.

“Don’t touch him,” the bodyguard said calmly, coldly, clicking the safety back onto his gun and sticking it in its holster. “You won’t get another warning.”

With the weapon aimed away from his face, Dick staggered back a step, eyes wide. He looked down at himself, as if checking for injuries he could not feel. Finally he looked up and Bruce couldn’t see his eyes at this angle, but he could picture how they blazed perfectly. He had plenty of experience being on the receiving end of Dick’s rage. “What the hell?! I wasn’t going to hurt him!” Dick snapped.

Prizrak raised one eyebrow, completely unruffled. “And that is why I didn’t hurt you,” he said, as if it was obvious.

Bruce lurched forward, quickly moving forward and grabbing Dick’s arms, looking him up and down. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Dick said, still sounding angry. Bruce could hear the tiniest bit of shakiness in his voice and instantly transferred a furious glare onto the bodyguard. He noticed in one corner of his mind that Damian and Mara both looked startled by Prizrak’s actions as well, which on one hand was a good thing, it meant he didn’t have to expect this behavior always, but on the other hand it meant something was bothering the extremely dangerous assassin, which was potentially catastrophic. Bruce straightened his back, slowly releasing Dick and turning towards Prizrak. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but this could not be allowed to happen again.

“Spar,” Cass said abruptly. Everyone in the room turned to look at her incredulously. She was staring directly at Prizrak. “Spar...with me,” she repeated.

Bruce opened his mouth to say “Absolutely not!” but the bodyguard beat him to it, laughing shortly and saying, “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

Cass tilted her head to one side, gaze still locked on the assassin. “Good for you. Help...calm.”

Prizrak stared at her blankly for a solid minute. “You’re serious.”

“Yes.”

Another long minute of contemplation. Bruce’s objection was cut down before he even opened his mouth by the sharp look Cass shot him. He didn’t know what his daughter was planning but he did know that, of all of them, Cass was the best choice to fight Prizrak. Perhaps she was planning on soundly defeating him, proving that they could contain him. In that case, them fighting could be extremely useful in keeping the precarious peace. Plus, he had to admit, he was curious to see what Prizrak was capable of.

Finally Prizrak looked back up, a spark in his eyes that hadn’t been there a minute before. “Ah, fuck it,” he said. “Hand to hand?”

Cass nodded. “No weapons.”

Prizrak shrugged. “Works for me.” He eyed Cass for a moment. “I’m not going to hold back.”

“Good,” was all Cass said.

Prizrak grinned and shrugged out of his jacket, dropping it on a table and beginning to unload a frankly ridiculous number of weapons, even by Bruce’s standards.

Damian was hovering around his bodyguard. “Akhi, what are you doing?”

“I’ll be fine, Dami,” the young man said, “It’ll be good for me to burn off some energy.” Well, he couldn’t argue with that. It abruptly occured to Bruce how strange it was for a bodyguard to call his charge a nickname, especially considering what ‘Dami’ meant in Arabic. Though if he really was Damian’s brother, it would make more sense. Honestly, he just wanted a straight answer about how his son was connected with this strange, violent man. Bruce’s hand flew to his utility belt as he remembered Talia’s letter. Maybe she had included some information about Prizrak.

Bruce retreated to his chair, watching as Cass bounced on her toes, stretching her arms and legs as she waited for Prizrak to join her on the large mat that took up a large portion of the Cave floor. The rest of his team clustered around the mat apprehensively. The man carefully unfolded the letter, keeping an eye on the mat as Prizrak, now barefoot and in a tight t-shirt obviously designed to fit underneath body armor, approached Cass.

He wasn’t too worried. After all, Cass was one of the best fighters in the world.


Jason grinned to himself as he pulled off his body armor. Was this the best idea? No. Definitely not. A rather large part of him was screaming that this was a perfect way to get dead. Again. But the girl was correct that sparring would help get out some aggression, hopefully enough to quiet down the voices that had gradually been getting louder no matter how much he re-enforced his mental walls. And if it was obvious that Bruce did not want this spar to happen? Well, that was just a bonus. He double-checked that his undershirt was correctly situated before striding over towards the mat, where almost everyone was already waiting. Bruce was sitting by the computer, looking at a piece of paper, but Jason had no delusions that the man wasn’t paying attention.

His feet sank slightly into the mat and Jason took a deep breath as he stretched quickly -- he didn’t have to, of course, he was trained to fight at the drop at a hat, warm or cold, but why risk injury when he didn’t have to? He stood, cracking his knuckles and rolling his neck as the girl stood opposite him. She didn’t bother getting into a ready stance and neither did he, abruptly charging forward with no warning. At least, he thought he didn’t give any warning. As the girl slid to the side and snatched his arm, twisting him and trying to lock him into a hold, he guessed he had projected a bit more than he intended. Unfortunately for her, he recognized the move and broke away easily, snapping an arm out and jabbing at a pressure point on her arm. She dodged, but had to release him to do so, and he rolled away, sparing a half-second to assess the bruises she left on his torso and arm.

“You’re League,” he breathed, an excited gleam in his eyes. They circled each other. “How’d you end up here?”

“Not League,” she said, her sharp eyes scanning him up and down endlessly.

Jason raised an eyebrow. “Your training shows differently.” He attacked in the middle of the sentence, but she once again dodged. They ended up slamming onto the floor when he swept her feet out from under her and grappling on the mat for a few moments. When they broke apart again, Jason’s brow was furrowed. There was something more than just skill and training here. Something familiar…. His eyes widened as a thought occurred to him. It couldn’t possibly...it was too ridiculous. But...maybe….

She came charging at him this time and he let all thought slide from his mind. It wasn’t exactly easy, but he had been working on this technique for several hours every day for over a month with a great deal of motivation, so it wasn’t nearly as hard as it would have been for anyone else. The trick to fighting someone like Shiva was to rely entirely on instinct, not thinking about the moves, just doing them. That way there was nothing to read.

The girl -- he really needed to figure out what her name was -- kicked off the ground and aimed a brutal strike at his solar plexus. He allowed the hit, waiting until she was up close before slamming one fist into her side, which she twisted to mostly deflect, and a follow-up strike to the face that she did not see coming. The girl’s head snapped back and her nose audibly shattered. Jason pressed his advantage, crashing his knee into her stomach and aiming a fist at her temple. She blocked the second hit and smashed her fist into his already-bruised ribs twice before he literally lifted her off the ground and threw her away from him. She rolled onto her feet, blood streaming from her nose, and Jason grinned, easily ignoring the pain from his probably-broken ribs. They started circling each other again. In his periphery vision, Jason could see Batman’s cronies looking distinctly nervous. The big man himself was staring at Cass with a pinched expression.

“You trained with Shiva,” Jason said. “How long? I’ve never met anyone else who can do what she does.”

“Never...trained. With her.”

“Bullshit.”

“True,” the girl insisted, her frankly creepy eyes still watching him, even with blood smeared across her face.

“Then how do you have her sight?” Jason challenged.

There was a brief pause before she said one word. “Mother.”

Jason’s eyes widened and he almost tripped. “Shiva is your mom?”

“Yes.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yes.” And with that, she was attacking again. Now that Jason knew her trick, though, they were pretty much at a stalemate. Oh, she was good. Excellent, even. But Shiva was better and thought that training just meant beating the shit out of him until he could defend himself. Eventually she would probably beat him, if only because he was still relatively new at his technique, but they never actually found out who would have won the match.

It happened while Jason was sending a flying spinning kick into the girl’s back and she flipped away, landing on the opposite side of the mat and giving them both a moment to breathe. A flash of color caught his eye and he found his gaze drawn inexorably to the side, despite how bad of an idea he knew it to be. He went abruptly still, staring at the Robin uniform hanging in the case which was set strangely apart from the rest. He was so distracted that his opponent’s next attack sent him flying and coincidently landing closer to the case. He moved to get up and get back to the fight when the words on the plaque paralyzed him.

Jason Todd

A Good Soldier

He stared blankly at the words for a long moment before dragging his gaze higher, looking at the costume with new eyes. It was familiar. Hauntingly familiar. His breathing stuttered as he took in the colors, the ones that had defined a huge part of his life. The ones he had died in.

Jason didn’t notice the way Cass stepped towards him before freezing, eyes widened in slowly dawning horror as she read him. He didn’t notice the way Bruce shot up from his seat, letter crumpled in his fist as emotions flashed across his face faster than even Cass could read. He didn’t notice the noise from the computer and the words that appeared on the screen: 99% Match: Jason Todd.

All that Jason was aware of was the green and the howling and screaming and acid burning his veins as everything he had been repressing burst forth all at once. He curled over as the laughing echoed through his body, shaking his bones with the force of an explosion and heat searing into his brain. He didn’t care. Hedidn’tcare hedidn’tcarehedidn’tcare.

Hunched over on the floor, body shaking, he tried vainly to force himself back behind his mental walls. He didn’t care, he had given up on Bruce a long time ago, it didn’t matter what they thought. In this moment none of these convictions mattered and he was left desperately trying to hang on to even a sliver of control. He couldn’t lose it here. It wasn’t safe. He had to protect Damian and Mara. He had to be stronger than this! A choked noise forced itself past his lips and he knew, with all the certainty of a man on a sinking ship, that he couldn’t get out of this. Talia wasn’t here to stop him; he’d go on a rampage, hurt who-knows how many people, maybe even Damian or Mara, and Bruce would lock him up and throw away the key. He would fail his mission. He would fail his family. The thought made him force himself more upright. No. His hands uncurled from his hair and fisted on the ground, nails digging into his palms hard enough to bleed.

“Knock me out,” he gasped, though it came out more like a croak. The green was encroaching even further and he knew he had less than a minute. “Knock me out!” he screamed. His voice was much shakier and pleading than he would have liked as he added, “Please,” and he abstractly knew that he would rather die than beg in front of Bruce and the others. But he wouldn’t die from this, he knew. The Pit may make him nearly suicidal, but there was still a hint of self-preservation that kept him alive. And he would rather beg than hurt Damian or Mara.

“Please,” he breathed again.

He didn’t know who it was that decided to take pity on him -- and fuck pity by the way --, but there was a quick pinch by his neck and he gratefully fell into the waiting blackness. Whatever shitshow would commence when he woke up -- and there was definitely going to be a shitshow -- he at least wouldn’t be trying to kill anyone while it happened.

Probably.

Chapter Text

The machine turned off with a quiet click and Bruce pulled Talia’s letter out of it. The scans had come up clean, no signs of tampering or traps, but he was still wary as he sliced open the envelope. Talia and Ra’s had used letters and packages as weapons before, he would not be entirely surprised if this turned out to be full of powdered poison or something similar that his equipment wasn’t capable of detecting. Nothing sprayed or fell out or tried to bite him -- that had been a very memorable occasion -- so he pulled out the letter and unfolded it.

The familiar sight of her handwriting hit him like a punch to the gut and alright, maybe he was feeling a bit more emotionally vulnerable than usual, it didn’t mean anything. Bruce shook off the memory of her green eyes smiling up at him and focused on the important things: he had a son that she had kept from him whose bodyguard was slightly unhinged and very dangerous. Even through the anger that welled up in him at the reminder, the hint of her perfume made his throat tighten. He glanced up, watching carefully as Cass and Prizrak stretched out. He shook his head briefly and looked back at the letter. Cass could handle herself, no more stalling. Steeling himself, he began reading.

Beloved,

'By now you are, of course, aware of my presence in Gotham and of my three companions. Whether you have already met them or read this before bursting in on them, there are some things you need -- deserve -- to know. The first you likely ascertained upon glimpsing the boy. Yes, he is indeed your son. Run your tests as much as you would like, I have nothing to hide any longer on his account. He is the child that I told you was lost, all those years ago. You were refusing to join the League and my Father...I will admit to you that I feared him. I fear him now as well, but no longer for my own sake. I have discovered that, though my own fear bound me to him, fear for my sons broke those chains. I do not hate my father, as I know you wish me to, but I know that he would not spare even I for a transgression of this magnitude. I know you must hate me right now, -- Bruce snorted at the understatement -- but I must ask that you do not take it out on our son, even unintentionally. I have raised him to be a prince, as is befitting his station, but even he is not without risk in the League. I myself am not sure what my father would do should he get ahold of Damian now that we have left. Do not drive him away, I beg you. Not for my sake, but for his.'

A horrible cracking noise had Bruce’s head jerking up from the letter and staring in surprise at the blood streaming down Cass’ face. He watched the lighting-fast movements, the jabs and blocks, throws and pins. It looked almost like a dance, and Bruce abruptly realized that Prizrak was much more dangerous than he had anticipated. He looked back to the letter, hoping for some indication of who the man was.

'As you have no doubt noticed, I used the word ‘sons’ above. This was no mistake. I do not know if you have yet made the connections -- he looked much different the last time you saw him -- but my eldest companion is someone you once knew very well. I hope, perhaps in vain, that my deceit regarding our youngest son may be softened by the return of another. I am, of course, talking about Jason. Bruce’s brain ground to a halt and he stared blankly at the letter. His anger returned with a vengeance and his teeth ground together so hard he could hear it. What was Talia trying to pull? He had thought she would have enough decency not to use Jason against him. Allow me to stress that this is no trick, no clone, no doppelganger. How he was returned to life I do not know, but your son was found by some of my men and was brought to me for healing. WHAT? His mind was heavily damaged and I did not return him at once because I hoped to fix him for you. It took much longer than I had hoped and over time I grew fond of the boy. He is brave and resourceful, smart and talented. Once his mind and body were healed, he told me he wished to remain with me and train in the ways of the League. I assure you, Beloved, I did not influence his decision, though I will admit that it caused me great joy to be allowed more time with him. He became my son in all but blood, and I am pleased to refer to him as such. He and Damian grew close and Jason recently became Damian’s Dark Angel. You should be proud of your son’s skill. Be gentle with him, Beloved. He has been through much, as you know, and still struggles despite my best efforts.

'It is perhaps callous of me to tell you all of this in a letter, free from questions and repercussions. The safety of my sons is my only priority, however, and my father needs to be kept away from them. He would not hesitate to kill Jason, at the very least, and I will not allow it. Protect them, Beloved, until my return.

Talia’

Bruce stared at the letter in his hand for a long few moments. He abstractly noticed that he was shaking, and not entirely from rage. How could Talia do this to him? His breathing came fast and he barely caught a glimpse of Prizrak -- and oh how he wanted to go grab the young man, force him to tell the truth -- sprawled on the floor before the computer dinged and he automatically swung around to look at it. His heart dropped and he gaped openly at the screen for a long moment. “No,” he breathed. A scream brought his head snapping back around.

This was too much. This was impossible. It couldn’t be Jason. It couldn’t. But for the second time that night the puzzle pieces were snapping neatly together and he refused to look at the picture. It had to be a lie, a trick. There was no way. It could not be Jason. His son was dead and buried, finally at peace. It couldn’t be. But the logical part of his brain, the Batman part, grudgingly admitted that the evidence was there, at least enough to demand some extra digging. Bruce rebelled at the thought. He didn’t want to go digging. The thought of what he might have to do to verify the truth made him shudder. Dear God did he not want to go digging.


Damian stared blankly at where Jason was lying on the floor. The whole room seemed to be frozen. Mara was standing beside him, her face abnormally pale. Damian blinked several times, hoping that his brother would get off the floor. When nothing changed he took a deep breath and resolutely did not freak out. Now was not the time to panic, now was the time for careful assessment and action. The only problem was that he didn’t know what action he was supposed to take. He shot a glance at his father. The man’s gaze was swiveling from the computer to Jason to the letter in his hand and he seemed too stunned to do much of anything. His father’s companions were no better, all staring at Jason, the computer, or each other in varying stages of shock and confusion.

Damian felt like his life was balancing on a knife point. Dramatic? Perhaps. But the situation had spiraled to such an extent that a little drama did not seem out of place. He wished Mother was here. He wished she had answered his questions about what happened at the amusement park.

The horrible stillness was finally broken by the servant -- Pennyworth, he believed, if he was not confusing the brief introductions they had been given. “Seeing how we certainly will not remain standing around until Mister Prizrak awakes, Master Dick, Master Bruce, if you would be so kind as to bring him over to the med bay.” Damian recognized an order when he heard it, even disguised as it was, and so did the others it seemed, as Grayson slowly moved forward, staring at Jason as if he were a bomb that was about to go off. Father, on the other hand, did not so much as twitch. He was staring at a familiar piece of paper, his eyes moving frantically back and forth. Damian perked up slightly. That was Mother’s stationary.

“B?” Grayson called, his voice strained from trying to lift Jason by himself. “A little help?”

Father slowly looked up and his face twitched for a moment before becoming blank. “Of course.” He walked over and pulled Jason’s other arm over his shoulder. They shuffled over to the med bay and deposited Jason on a gurney, Damian trotting along beside them. Jason did not look different than he normally did, aside from being unconscious, which did a little to calm Damian’s heartbeat. It sped right back up again when Father began clamping restraints around Jason’s wrists and ankles.

“What are you doing?!” he cried.

His father glanced at him. “He is dangerous, we have to take precautions.”

“He will not harm you!”

“With what I just saw? We can’t be sure about that,” Father said inexorably. “This is for his own protection as well.”

Damian looked helplessly over at Mara, who was beside him again. Her eyes darkened and she reached into her sleeve, where he knew she kept her blades. Damian’s eyes widened and he grabbed her wrist. “No!” he whispered.

“Jason would not want this,” she hissed back. “You know this, Ibn ‘ama <cousin>.”

Damian looked back at Jason’s slack face, then up at Father, who was now drawing blood from Jason’s arm. He wavered uncertainly. He had always been told that his father, the Batman, always knew what to do. He had fended off alien invaders and monsters that should never see the light. But...he knew Jason hated being restrained. This would do nothing to calm him down when he woke. And hadn’t Mother done everything in her power to make Jason calm and happy and safe, four days ago? “I-”

When it became clear that he wasn’t going to say anything more, Mara’s face twisted in disgust. “You may not defend him, but I will,” she snarled in his ear, pushing past him, her muscles coiled for movement… only to freeze as Father turned around and fixed them both with a sharp gaze.

“What is this?” he asked, holding up his hand. His fingertips were darker than the rest of his skin.

“Makeup,” Damian said, his throat feeling strangely dry. “To make his coloration blend in more with our own.”

Father didn’t say anything for a long moment, his eyes boring into them. Damian felt an insane urge to stab the man, just to make him stop looking at him like that. “Tim,” the man barked abruptly. Now this one needed no real introduction. Jason had never talked about Batman and his associates to Damian, but he had enough old memories of his brother ranting angrily to Mother that the name was familiar. And if the fuzzy memory from several years ago held true, the face was an older version of the same one Jason had taken great pleasure in using as a target for knife practice. Damian wasn’t entirely sure why Jason hated Drake, but he did and that was enough for him. Damian leveled Drake with a glare as the teenager drew closer.

“Run this through the analysis again,” Father said, holding out the vial of Jason’s blood. Drake took it and scurried off like a coward. Damian’s lip curled.

“Damian.” Father was looking at him again.

“Yes, Father?”

“I need you to tell me about Prizrak. Real name, how you know him, everything.”

Damian shifted uncomfortably. “Perhaps we should wait for him to wake and talk to him.”

“No. I need to know now.”

Damian looked at Mara. She glared back, her fingers still bent into her sleeve. Well, it was obvious what she thought. He tugged at the hem of his tunic nervously before forcing his hands to still. “His name is Jason, but I think you knew that already.”

“Do you know his full name?” Father’s voice was hard and cold, Damian repressed a shiver.

“Jason Peter Todd. He is nineteen years old and grew up here, in Gotham.”

“Anything else?”

“He- he was Robin. The Joker hurt him and he stopped.” Damian wondered why Grayson -- who had been hovering by Father’s shoulder -- drew back with a pained expression.

“How do you know him?”

“My mother healed him. She took care of him and he takes care of me.” Damian straightened his shoulders. On this he would not budge, not even for his father. “He is my brother.”

Father’s mouth thinned but all he said was, “Do you know what happened just now?”

Damian shook his head silently.

“Has it happened before?”

“Once, at the amusement park.” He anticipated the next question and added, “Mother...did something, I don’t know what, she took him away and when they came back he was fine.”

Drake came back over. “I’ve got the sample running. Mara’s results came out; she is Damian’s cousin.”

Damian sniffed. “Of course she is. Did you doubt my words, Drake?”

The teenager blinked at him. “It’s Tim, actually,” he said, sticking out his hand with a tentative smile. “I’m...your brother, I guess.”

“I am well aware of your name, Drake.”

Drake slowly withdrew his hand and looked to Father, smile fading into confusion. Damian snorted. Fool.

“I adopted him, Damian. He is your brother.”

Damian looked up at Father. What was this betrayal? Surely Father knew that a piece of paper meant nothing? “But he is not your true son, that can only be through blood.” Drake wilted and Damian smirked at him.

“Does that mean that...Jason...is not your true brother?” Father asked.

Damian bristled. “Even if Jason had no association with you, he would still be my brother. My mother gave him life, therefore he is her son and my brother.”

“And how, exactly, did she give him life?”

Damian frowned. “Did my mother not tell you? She gave you a letter, did she not?”

“She did. There was no mention of how she healed him, just that she did.”

Damian frowned hesitantly. Perhaps Mother did not wish Father to know that Jason had been placed in the Lazarus Pit? But why? Would it change the way Father viewed Jason? Did Jason not wish him to know? “I...think that question is best answered by Jason.”

“He won’t wake up for a while,” Grayson said, leaning one elbow on the gurney and studying Damian. “Cass laid him out pretty good.”

“Injuries do not work the same for Jason as they do for others,” Damian said.

“Because of how Talia healed him?” the young man asked, eyes piercing.

Damian eyed him right back and did not answer.

The silence stretched and lengthened.

Ibn ‘ama,” Mara murmured. He looked at her. “It is growing late; if you do not plan to sleep, and Jason does not require a guard, we should practice our kata.”

Damian cocked his head to one side. Well, at least she wasn’t planning on attacking Father anymore. “We have completed our exercises for today.”

“What else do you propose we do?” the girl demanded, her voice becoming more cutting. Damian noted the tension running up and down her limbs and cast his assessing gaze inward for a moment. He, too, was stiff and anxious. As Jason had pointed out before, some exercise certainly could not hurt. And he didn’t want Mara to revert to her original plan.

“Very well.” He looked up at his father. “May we use your mats?”

“Go ahead,” Father said, a hint of curiosity in his eyes.

Mara bowed stiffly to the man and walked over to the training area, not noticing the flash of surprise that showed on his face at the gesture. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, allowing the tension in her limbs to fall away. This was her element, as sure as a fish belongs in water and a bird in the air, and there were few places she felt more comfortable than on a sparring mat. All her life they had represented freedom and release, despite the rules and frequent pain that accompanied them. The training rooms were the only place she was afforded the same opportunities as everyone else, regardless of her parentage. If she bested Damian there, she bested him, and it did not matter that her father had been disgraced. If she failed she was punished as any other trainee, nevermind that her grandfather was Ra’s al Ghul. It was a point of consistency in a life that was often thrown on its head. Was it so strange, then, that she clung to it in times of uncertainty and fear?

Her eyes snapped open and she launched herself into movement, spinning and kicking her way through the katas. At first she contented herself with hand-to-hand, but after several minutes she pulled out her knives, flowing relatively seamlessly from one kata to another. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Damian practicing with his katana, parrying blows from an invisible opponent. For a moment she entertained the idea of moving into his space, turning their individual katas into a spar. It would certainly be more interesting. But the memory of Jason’s reaction the last time they had done that convinced her to remain on her own mat.

She stabbed downward and froze as a familiar voice said, “You’re dropping your hand too low.”

Mara’s head snapped up and she grinned widely before catching herself. “Mudarris!” She bowed excitedly.

Jason grinned and ruffled her hair as he walked over. “Normally you would have struck in the right place, but whoever taught you this kata forgot to account for your shorter reach. For you,” he tapped a spot about a foot higher than where her blade had brushed the mat, “the jugular would be here.” She nodded and prepared to repeat the exercise.

“How did you get out of the restraints?” the Batman demanded, suddenly looming very close to them.

Mara took a step closer to Jason and he dropped a hand on her shoulder, not looking at the man. “They’re not exactly the most difficult in the world.” Damian quietly walked over until he was standing on Jason’s other side. The Batman was staring at Jason and Mara had enough experience with angry adults to know that the man was livid.

“Who are you.” Each word seemed like it was forced out of him with pliers. The computer dinged again and they all looked over. 99% Match: Jason Todd.

Jason finally looked at the man, almost eye to eye. “I think that answers your question.”

The Batman’s fists clenched and Mara tensed, sure that violence was about to break out.

“Now everyone just...calm down.” Mara looked over at Nightwing, who had just popped up beside and between Jason and Batman and was holding up his hands appeasingly, though he looked rather shaky. “I’m sure we can figure this out.” The young man looked at Jason. “We need to know the truth. Are you a clone? Some sort of magically or genetically modified person? Shapeshifter? You can’t be the real Jason Todd.”

“Why not?” Damian demanded, looking murderous.

Nightwing looked at him solemnly. “Because Jason Todd is dead.”

Mara recoiled and she could hear Damian scoffing. “No he’s not, he’s right….” the boy trailed off and Mara looked up at Jason. He was avoiding their eyes. “...Akhi?” Damian asked, weakly.

Jason ran a hand over his face and stared at the ceiling. “My injuries might have been a bit more...severe than I led you to believe.”

Mara felt all the color drain from her face. Damian was stammering, trying to make sense of the situation. “But- but that can’t be right! I mean you’re- you’re here ! The Lazarus Pit cannot bring people back to life, only from the brink!”

“I don’t know how it happened, kid,” Jason said, sighing. “Neither does Talia. All we know is that I woke up in my coffin and had to dig my way out.” He finally locked eyes with Batman with that final sentence and Mara saw the man flinch backwards. Nightwing looked like he was about to fall over and Robin looked vaguely ill. Jason didn’t stop there. “Talia doesn’t know how long I was wandering around Gotham, basically brain-dead, but she found me and tried to fix me. Normal methods didn’t work so she chucked me in the Lazarus Pit.” He spread his hands out, “And here we are.”

Batman seemed to be struggling to keep his composure. “Your DNA. It doesn’t fully match.”

“Yeah, that’d be the Pit. It alters your DNA when you take a swim in it. Apparently the effects vary from person to person.” He tugged at his white forelock. “S’where I got this. Mutation in the KIT gene.”

There was a moment of silence when Batman and Nightwing looked at each other. “It’s...possible,” Nightwing finally admitted. “The DNA mutation bit, at least. I don’t know about the- the-” he stopped trying, his golden skin looking more green right about then.

“S’not entirely crazy,” Jason said. “I’m pretty sure Superman’s come back, like, at least once.”

“Yeah,” Batgirl said from her place off to the side. “But he’s Superman.”

Jason shrugged. “Point.”

Mara looked at him and narrowed her eyes. She didn’t know why Jason was telling them all of this when he had been so tight-lipped earlier.

The truth was, Jason was tired. He was tired of having to deal with his old family, he was tired of having to control all of his emotions, he was actually physically exhausted like he always was after having his mind and body ravaged by a Pit Attack. His mental walls were gone, shattered by the acid in his brain, and it would take time to build them up again, to get back into the Dark Angel persona. Besides, it wasn’t like they would leave him alone if he avoided their questions, so might as well get it all over with and out in the open. Maybe then he could get some sleep. He was resolutely not thinking about what had set him off, because then he’d get into a fight with Bruce and he was too tired for that. Not to mention he wasn’t wearing any armor.

“If you feel the need to check the coffin, be my guest,” he said blandly, enjoying the way Bruce flinched. “But there’s nothing inside ‘cept dirt and bugs.”

He laced his fingers together and stretched his arms above his head, deliberately making the motion looked relaxed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s past the brats’ bedtime.”

Damian instantly bristled and went to argue but Jason just grabbed him by the collar and dragged him off towards the stairs, making a quick detour to collect their equipment and clothes. Alfred -- and thank God for Alfred, man -- quietly led the way to the second floor of the manor and showed them a guest bedroom.

“I am partway through opening up another room-” he began but Jason cut him off.

“This is perfect, we’ll be staying together.” He hesitated, feeling oddly sheepish about looking at the old man. “Thanks, Alfie.”

The old man only hesitated for a moment before stepping forward and slowly wrapping his arms around Jason. “Welcome back, Master Jason,” he said quietly. “It is so good to see you again.”

Jason felt his throat closing up and squeezed back. “You too,” he choked out. When had he gotten taller than the only grandfather he’d ever known? Alfred stepped back -- was that a tear he was wiping away?

“Well, Master Jason, Master Damian, Miss Mara, it has been a long and eventful day and you all need your rest. I will see you in the morning,” he said briskly, though his eyes still seemed a little wet.

“G’night, Alfie,” Jason said, smiling shakily. The man nodded and closed the door. Jason slowly backed up until the backs of his knees hit the bed and sank down on it, burying his face in his hands. His breathing started to come faster until he shoulders were shaking with each inhale. He couldn’t do this. It was too much, too fast. There was no way he could-

A warm body pushing up against his side derailed his thoughts from the cliff they were charging towards. He looked down, surprised to see Mara of all people leaning up against him. Damian was quick to follow suit on the other side. Jason wrapped his arms around them, letting out a shaky laugh that was half a sob. Maybe, if they were here, he could do this.

Chapter Text

The shovels slammed into the ground with a steady rhythm: thud, scrape, dump, thud, scrape, dump, thud, scrape, dump, thunk.

Dick looked up and met Bruce’s eyes. They were steely and detached and Dick knew Bruce was distancing himself from the situation as much as he possibly could. But there, in that brief moment, Dick saw his own fear reflected back at him. It was strange, to get comfort from  someone else being just as scared as you, especially if that person almost never showed their fear. But dammit this was supposed to be scary and painful, they were digging up Jason’s grave for God’s sake! It was supposed to hurt. And Dick knew that it did hurt Bruce, he knew that Bruce just had a different way of dealing than he did and that was ok. But whenever something huge happened and he saw that blank expression he wanted to punch it right off the man’s face because you should be feeling something! I need to know you’re feeling something!

The moment passed and Bruce redoubled his efforts, throwing dirt out of the deep hole so wildly he almost hit Dick in the face with his shovel. Dick swallowed down the bile that was rising in his throat and helped clear off the coffin. It was too dark to see properly in the hole, even with the floodlight they had brought with them, so the two men each grabbed a handle and hauled the heavy wood casket to the surface, into the bright beam of light. Bruce crouched down, running a hand over the lid, right underneath the hole that had been torn through it.

“It wasn’t cut,” he said, clearly in Batman mode even without the cowl. “The edges are too rough.” He took a few pictures at different angles and Dick felt like screaming that this wasn’t a normal case, why are you so calm?! But he didn’t, quietly helping Bruce remove the lid. He had already known what he would see, but it still hit him like a punch to the gut.

“Empty-” he gasped, staggering back a step. “It’s empty. Just like he said it would be.”

Dick didn’t know if what he was feeling was horror or jubilation, maybe a mix of the two. He looked at Bruce, who was standing above the coffin, his jaw clenched and eyes squeezed shut. One breath. Two. His eyes snapped open and he knelt by the coffin, reaching in and pulling something out. Dick was afraid to look but Bruce held it up and said, “Belt buckle. Almost completely destroyed.” He turned it over in his gloved hands before sliding it into an evidence baggie. “If we look on the lid there should be...” he stood up and walked to the other side of the coffin, closer to Dick, pointing at the damaged piece of wood. “Grooves matching the size of the buckle around the hole.” His voice was flat, more dead than Dick had heard in years. Dick looked at the grooves and felt horror swamping all his other emotions.

“So it’s true,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “He dug himself out.”

Bruce looked at him for a long moment. “It seems that way, yes.” The man bent back over the lid and frowned thoughtfully. “These grooves though...they don’t match. They almost look like-” he cut off abruptly. Dick felt like he really, really didn’t want to know, but found himself asking anyway.

“What?”

Bruce didn’t answer, standing and moving back to the main part of the coffin. He examined the pile of dirt near the top of the casket and moved it around a little. After a moment he froze long enough that Dick took a step forward.

“Bruce?”

The man pulled out another baggie and dropped something small into it. He held it up, refusing to meet Dick’s eyes. “Fingernails.”

Dick felt his dinner threatening to make an appearance again and turned away, doubling over with one hand over his mouth. His breath was coming in pants and he was sure that at the moment he looked like a ghost. Oh God, oh God, ohGodohGodohGod.

Big hands grabbed his shoulders, “Dick, you need to breathe.”

Waking up in the dark and the cold and he must have been so scared.

“Dick!”

Did he know what was going on? Or did he think we just abandoned him?

“Richard!” Bruce’s bark cut through Dicks’ frantic thoughts and made his head jerk up. Bruce was staring right into his eyes. “Listen to me, Jason is fine. He’s back at the house, remember? You saw him. He even was matching Cass in a fight. He’s okay, he’s alive. I need you to breathe, okay? Deep breath in, come on.” Dick shuddered in a raspy gasp. “That’s it, hold for four, two three four, now exhale, two three four.” He kept up the calm, constant refrain until Dick’s breathing evened out and he wasn’t about to fall over.

“Oh God, Bruce,” Dick said, tears starting to slip down his cheeks. “We weren’t there. We weren’t there.”

Bruce pulled him forward into a rare hug, holding him so tight to his chest Dick almost squeaked involuntarily. “I know. I know we weren’t,” he said, his own voice rough with emotion.

Dick’s voice was muffled against Bruce’s chest as he whispered, “What are we gonna do, B?”

Bruce ran a hand through his son’s hair. “I don’t know.” He looked up at the sky -- a rare cloudless night that did not match the situation at all -- and closed his eyes tightly for a moment, resolutely ignoring the trickle of liquid that slid down his face. “I don’t know.”


Jason woke up and did not know where he was. This, naturally, caused a healthy dose of panic to flood his body and he abruptly rolled to the side, planning to get off the bed and onto his feet. Unfortunately, he had not accounted for the person that was laying next to him and slammed into them, sending whoever it was crashing to the ground. His momentum, lessened but not completely dispelled by the collision, send him partly over the edge of the mattress and he ended up dangling half off the bed, scrabbling for a hand hold. The bite of cold steel on his throat brought his senses into sharp focus, jarring his memory.

“Easy, Dami, it’s just me,” he said, very carefully not moving. “It’s Jason.”

Damian held the knife at his throat for a moment longer before pulling it away quickly. His breathing was ragged and his eyes more than a little wild. The boy ran a hand through his mussed hair. “Bihaqi aljahim <what the hell>?!”

Jason slowly sat up. Mara was standing against the far wall, taking in obviously-measured breaths, one hand clutching at her dagger. “'ana asif <I'm sorry>,” he said quietly, rubbing his face with one hand. “I woke up and forgot where we were. Panicked a bit.”

Damian’s stance relaxed a bit more and Mara slowly released the hilt of her knife. “It is...understandable,” Damian said, sitting beside Jason on the edge of the bed. “Things are happening very quickly.”

“You can say that again,” Jason muttered.

The door crashed open and the three occupants of the room were instantly on alert. Damian leapt to his feet, Mara pushed off the wall, and Jason -- his instincts screaming DANGER -- automatically hurled a throwing knife at the intruder. It slammed hilt-deep into the heavy wood door that had been jerked closed by whoever stood behind it. Jason rose to his full height and stalked over to the door, yanking the blade out of the wood and whipping the door back open. His arm lashed out, hand wrapping around the throat of the person on the other side and -- with two large strides -- slamming them against the opposite wall.

“Do not,” he hissed in his most deadly voice, the hand holding the eight-inch knife braced against the wall close to his opponent’s face, “ ever do that again, or the next knife is going in your eye.” He wiggled the point of the knife for emphasis, staring into frightened blue eyes unblinkingly.

“Jason!” Bruce’s voice yelled from down the hall, and Jason’s fist tightened reflexively before he took a deep breath and forced the agitation down, releasing his grip and dropping the smaller man to the floor. Dick slumped against the wall and gasped for breath, rubbing at his throat. Jason looked down at him in disgust, anger and fear still running rampant through his veins. Bruce blocked his view of Dick a second later, crowding into his personal space, forcing him away. The young man considered just...stabbing Bruce. Right then and there. He had his knife and it would solve a lot of his problems. Unfortunately it would cause a lot too. After a long, tense silence where they both glared at each other, Jason took a step backwards, rocking on his heels and raising both hands a little, the knife in his right belying the peaceful motion. He turned on his heel and walked back into the room, shutting the door behind him. After several moments of too-hasty meditation and listening to the sound of footsteps walking away, Jason inhaled deeply and opened his eyes.

“Okay, guys. The day is...not off to a great start. But let’s try not to kill anyone alright?” At their raised eyebrows he grimaced. “Any more. At least not around Alfred, that man has enough bullshit to put up with as it is.” He paused and the grimace became more pronounced. “And please don’t curse in English, at least not in front of Talia.”

“Mother is not here,” Damian reminded him.

“I know. Not in front of Alfred either.”

“Very well,” the boy said, sounding supremely unconcerned. Of course not, he wasn’t the one Talia would flay alive for corrupting her son.

Jason forcefully pushed down his still-turbulent emotions and clapped his hands together. Focus on something else. Anything else. “Alright, workout clothes. Let’s go find a bigger space to get started.” The three of them always trained together before breakfast and dinner, unless something important or special happened. Sometimes Talia joined in too. Jason didn’t know if that would change, now that they were at the Manor, but he would be damned if he made the changes easy.

The three of them filed out of their room a minute later, loose clothes whispering almost-silently as they made their way down the hallway, cloth wrapping preventing their equipment from rattling in their bags. Damian and Mara looked around curiously, taking in the tall ceiling, the paintings on the walls, and the occasional suit of armor.

“So this is our ancestral home,” Damian said.

Jason’s steps faltered but he forced himself to keep marching forward. “Yep, the Wayne’s have been here since Gotham was founded.” He very resolutely held back the automatic ‘your ancestral home’. He had already made it pretty clear that he didn’t think of Bruce as his father. It seemed that Damian was following Talia’s lead and ignoring everything he said on the subject. If he pushed it, the boy would doubtless take it as a rejection. Despite having been raised as a prince and told that he was destined to rule the world, Damian had a surprising amount of abandonment issues. Maybe it was due to Ra’s keeping Damian away from Talia as much as possible until he was four; that was some pretty major mother-son relationship development missed out on. Maybe the reason Damian accepted Jason’s induction into their little family so well was because he was already only really getting to know one family member for the first time, why not add another? That was a depressing thought.

Jason led the way cautiously, peering into empty rooms, trying to remember if there were any rooms big enough to train effectively without being noticed. It wasn’t exactly easy; all of his memories before the Pit were...tainted. It was harder to recognize positive emotions in the past because the hissing that rose in his ears told him a tale of only hate, disgust, and obligation; fake smiles, faker laughter, the anger and desperation that had filled his final days. Fighting against the voice just gave him migraines, so he tended to just listen to it. Up until now it hadn’t mattered, because he had never planned on coming back, but now….

He poked his head into one room that looked suitable and a memory of running feet and laughter danced to the forefront of his mind. His eyes moved to a spot by the large window, where a small scratch had once marred the wall, put there when Jason had knocked over a side table during ‘stealth training’ -- Bruce liked calling things training to give them an excuse to have fun together. Jason abruptly jerked his head out of the room, closing the door a bit more firmly than necessary.

Akhi? That room seemed suitable.”

“Nope.”

“But-”

“No.”

Damian exchanged looks with Mara but dropped it, thankfully. Jason wasn’t sure what he would say if asked. ‘Oh, it’s just old memories that I can’t seem to get a handle on. Yeah, I know I’m weak and probably shouldn’t be trusted to take care of you but right now I’m the only one here we can even sort of trust and that’s kind of freaking me out.’

Yeah, no.

“Let’s try in the other wing,” Jason muttered, starting back towards the large staircase that led to the first floor and the set of rooms that lay beyond it.

Unfortunately for his plans of a relatively calming and undisturbed training session, they were accosted at the top of the stairs by Bruce, who looked very angry. Jason noted for the first time the tshirt and sweatpants the man was wearing, and the dark bags under his eyes. It was barely six a.m., what was he even doing up? The thoughts were pushed from his mind as Bruce stepped in front of him.

“Jason.”

“Bruce,” Jason replied, narrowing his eyes and matching the aggressive tone.

Bruce’s hands -- which were already clenched into fists, would you look at that -- tightened. “You attacked Dick.”

“He brought it on himself,” Jason said, voice careless, eyes watchful. “He should know better than to barge into a room filled with trained assassins without warning.”

Dick’s voice suddenly spoke up behind Bruce, sounding winded and croaky. “He’s right, Bruce. I didn’t think, it was my fault.” He looked up at Jason, giving the young man a perfect view of the hand-shaped bruises wrapped around his throat. “I’m sorry Jason, I should have known that would have sc-” Jason’s already tense muscles tightened further and he glared at Dick, who hastily corrected, “startled you.” Dick looked down at Damian and Mara. “I’m sorry for barging in like that, guys. I heard banging and yelling and I was just...worried.”

Damian stared at Dick for a long moment. Jason wondered what the boy was thinking. His quick glance at Bruce answered that question and Jason ground his teeth together in frustration. Why did Talia have to portray Bruce like a god to this kid? Sure she had stopped doing so since they had been on the run but almost eight years of conditioning doesn’t just go away. Jason wanted to tell Damian that what Bruce thought didn’t matter, but he knew it was pointless.

“You are lucky Jason was not more alert,” Damian finally said haughtily. “Had he not just awoken, you would have paid for your intrusion with your life.” He studied Dick, whose eyes had widened at the calm statement. “Your indiscretion can be forgiven, so long as it remains a one-time occurrence.” Jason rolled his eyes. Damian always used his biggest words when he felt threatened or uncertain or wanted to make a good impression. Jason was pretty sure it was mostly the latter in this case.

Dick nodded slowly. “...right. Of course.” He glanced at Bruce for a moment before looking at the three of them again. “What are you guys doing up so early?”

“Training,” Jason said shortly, knowing that refusing to answer would just make everything worse.

Dick blinked. “At six a.m.?”

“We train together before breakfast and dinner,” Damian interjected.

Dick and Bruce exchanged looks. “Were you...headed down to the Cave?” Dick asked.

“No.”

“Why not?” Dick’s brow furrowed in confusion. Bruce’s eyes narrowed. Jason just glared at them both.

When it was obvious no answer was forthcoming, Dick said, “Well, why don’t we all go down? I know I want to see what you guys can do!”

Jason’s teeth ground together. Damian and Mara looked up at him. Mara looked blank, Damian was hopeful. Jason stared at them both for a long moment before sighing through his teeth and taking a step closer to Dick and Bruce. It wasn’t like they weren’t going to see them training eventually. “Fine.” He stabbed a finger at both of them, face deadly serious, his eyes sparking dangerously. “But you don’t interfere. I am their teacher, not you.”

Dick nodded rapidly, “Right! Of course!” Bruce didn’t say anything.

Jason huffed and waved a hand at the stairs. “Let’s go then, we’re wasting time.”

The walk down to Bruce’s study and the elevator ride down to the Cave was silent and tense. Jason could feel his hackles slowly rising the closer they got. He forced the feeling out of his mind, instead running through the exercises they would be doing today. This was fine, he could handle this. Just focus on the kids and pretend like everything is normal and you don’t feel like crawling out of your skin. He led the way over to the mat and closed his eyes for a moment, inhaling deeply and feeling his mind settle into the role of teacher. He wasn’t really Jason right now, not any more than he was Jason in Dark Angel mode. He was Mudarris, and Mudarris didn’t care where they were so long as his students learned. He just had to remember that.

Jason opened his eyes and barked, “Jahiz <Ready>!” Mara and Damian snapped to attention in front of him. Jason bowed to them and they bowed back. “Taskhun, khms majmueat <warm up, five sets>.” As one, the two kids began warming up, doing a series of lunges, reaches, and rotations. Jason did the same, his version a bit different due to the difference in size and strength.

Once they had finished, Jason put his hands on his hips and looked around the cave. “We’ve been working a lot on your katas lately and you’ve been doing well in them so today you’ll be learning some new strikes. We’ll implement them into some forms later.” Damian and Mara grinned excitedly. Jason smirked back. He knew well how boring repeating the same moves over and over could be. “Come on over here,” he waved a hand and walked over to a line of training dummies. “So, you guys have been learning a lot of the fancy moves the League uses and a lot of the time they actually do work really well, especially when you’re fighting an opponent who is at your skill level.” He looked them both up and down. “But if you’re in a situation where you don’t have any of your equipment on you, or they’re less skilled, there’s no point in using fancy moves. They could have backup. They could have a knife or a gun concealed on their person. You need to take them out quick and hard.” Jason grinned. “Buckle your seatbelts, kiddos, because I’m gonna teach you street fighting.”

The first thing he did was sit on the floor. Damian and Mara quickly followed suit. This was normal for Jason, he liked talking about the different aspect and uses of a move before actually showing it to them. “So the first thing you have to remember in a street fight is that there are no rules. You’re not following the League’s code of honor, you’re not thinking about who it is that is attacking you, you’re just acting and acting hard. You see a way to fight dirty? You fight dirty. Your goal is to survive and that’s it.”

Damian frowned and opened his mouth. Jason cut him off, “Yes, I know that this isn’t what the League teaches but we’re not in the League any more. I’ve wanted to teach you guys this stuff for a while but Ra’s would’ve probably killed me. Make sure you understand this: honor doesn’t mean shit on the streets.” The eight-year-olds looked troubled but nodded, Mara more quickly than Damian. Jason stared at them for a long moment before nodded firmly. “Ok, so the moves I’m gonna show you are derived from a few different martial arts, but first we’re gonna talk about some different scenarios. You both have great situational awareness, but you’re used to a different environment.

“So, imagine this. You’re walking home one day, in civvies, and you make the very stupid decision to cut through an alley. You’re jumped immediately, three grown men. There’s the normal stuff around you like broken bottles, needles, dumpsters, a fire escape. What do you do? Not looking for the obvious takedowns you guys have trained in already.”

Mara looked down at her lap thoughtfully. Jason could see her struggling to get into a new mindset. “You could jump up to the fire escape and use the leverage for a takedown,” she finally said.

“What kind?”

“You could jump onto someone’s head and snap their neck; you could kick them in the face and blind them; if you kick their temple hard enough you could kill them.”

“All of which are sound options,” Jason replied, smiling at her. “But there is another one, if you make it to the fire escape.”

Both kids cocked their heads at him. Jason’s smile widened to a grin. “You can run.” Damian and Mara both looked hilariously offended by this. “Hear me out,” Jason said, still grinning. “They’re surrounding you, and they’re watching your every move. The chance of you getting to that fire escape is okay, with your skill level, but you probably wouldn’t make it out unscathed. All it takes is one lucky hit. So yeah, if you’re ever in that position, your goal is to run. Get out, find me, find somewhere with a lot of people. This especially applies for however long we’re in Gotham.” He held their gaze, face serious again, until they both reluctantly nodded. “Good. What else?”

Damian spoke up this time. “You could utilize the needles lying about?”

“Last resort kind of thing, but yes. The problem with that is you’d have to pick them up, which leaves you completely open. Remember, you guys are tiny. They could suplex you with one hand.” That earned him a pair of -- slightly confused -- glares. Jason doubted they knew what a suplex was, but they got the idea. He shrugged. “S’true. Anyway, yes, a needle can be used to stab but you don’t really want to touch them yourselves. Again, last resort. Anything else?”

“You could...hit someone’s head on the corner of a dumpster?” Mara asked hesitantly. Damian blinked at her. That kind of thing would not have been applauded as inventive and good usage of the surroundings in the League, it would have been seen as cowardly and without honor; even Damian’s idea of using makeshift weapons was toeing the line. But Jason wasn’t the League.

He grinned again. “Good, if you can get the leverage that would be an great move. But, again, you’re tiny. Your best bet would be to stay low and use your speed. They’re big, but that means they’re slow.”

“Ubu is very big,” Damian pointed out. “But he is also very fast.”

“Point,” Jason said, pointing at the boy. “But Ubu’s been trained for years. These guys are just thugs who barely know how to throw a punch. I want you guys ducking and dodging whenever possible. That said,” he stood up gracefully, “there will definitely be times where running isn’t an option. Your old teachers trained you a lot for the sizes you’re going to be, not the sizes you are now. And that’s fine when you’re just training, but on the streets you need to be able to move instantly and not worry about tweaking your technique because you’re hitting a foot below where you’re supposed to. Use your knives, use broken glass, use your body to get them down to your level and then take them out. A slice to the hamstring with anything sharp is going to get them to at least stagger. Ax-stomp their foot or leg, hit them in the groin, anything to level the playing field. There’s no place for fancy flips and jumps out there.”

They nodded determinedly, standing up and coming closer when he gestured. “Ok, so this is a pretty simple move that you can use once they’re lower down. You slice the hamstring, they fall onto one knee, you hit them with a double palm strike. S’like a normal palm strike except while you’re moving the first hand to hit, your second hand comes behind it.” He demonstrated, hands sandwiched together, palms facing out. “The first hand focuses more on aiming and the second one uses the shoulder and back, drives up with the elbow, and gives most of the force. Like this.” He turned to the training dummy and got into his stance. “He comes at me, I dodge his first swing,” he ducked to the side, “and then bam!” He lunged forward, driving his hands into the dummy’s nose. The mannequin jerked backwards and a loud alarm blared from it. Jason lurched back himself, hand going instinctively to his knife. “What the hell was that?!”

“Potentially lethal force alert,” Bruce replied grimly, emitting the frequency of brood that signaled anger almost louder than the blasting alarm. Dick looked uncomfortable, like he was forcing himself not to say anything.

“Well is there any way to turn it off?” Jason asked, annoyed. Dick stepped forward and tapped something on the back of the dummy, mercifully silencing the loud noise. “Permanently?” Jason added.

“No.” If Bruce got any more growly someone was going to call animal control. Someone being him.

“Do you have any normal dummies?”

No.”

Jason growled in frustration. Oh great, it was catching. “How am I supposed to-” he stopped abruptly. “...Actually…” he tapped his chin. “We can work with this.” He turned to look at Damian and Mara. “Right, so you saw what I did, yeah?” They nodded. “Good. Now it’s your turn.”

He grinned wolfishly.

“Your goal is to make the alarm go off.”

Chapter Text

Tim stumbled into the kitchen, groggily fumbling for a seat at the counter. It had been a long night, the crazy revelations of the evening had not exactly made for easy sleeping. The sixteen-year-old unlocked his phone and squinted at the string of texts that blared at him from the notifications, all sent within the last three minutes.

Couldnt concentrate at ALL after what happened

Im going 2 bomb this test if i can’t copy off u

Please?

Just this once?

I CAN’T FAIL ANOTHER TEST TIM

He groaned loudly and slammed his head down on the table. “Damn it!” he hissed.

Tim sat up again and his thumbs started flying over the keyboard. Yeah...which subject is this again??

Her reply came not thirty seconds later. Im going 2 die and im taking u w me

Well, that was entirely unhelpful. Tim put his head back down on the table and wished that Bruce would just let him drop out of school already. He could get his GED! He could be doing something more important than studying ionic bonds. ...was it a chemistry test? It might be.

The teenager sighed heavily and pushed his hair out of his face. Whatever it was, he had more important things to worry about. Like where everybody was. Alfred hadn’t even popped up with his ninja powers and shoved food at him. A glance around the room showed no one had snuck up on him and there was no sound in the house at all. Tim’s brow furrowed and he slowly got up, making his way out of the kitchen on silent feet. Due to the sheer size of the building, sound didn’t travel well, but there was usually something. One hand automatically pulled up contacts on his phone, his finger poised over Steph’s name. No one appeared as he reached the bottom of the staircase, no voice called a good morning, no older siblings popped out of nowhere to sneak-hug him.

“Alfred?” Tim called hesitantly. “Dick?” He carefully walked towards the study and the grandfather clock. It was one thing for Bruce or Dick to not be awake at -- he glanced at his phone -- seven-thirty, but Cass and Alfred? If he reached the Cave, he could check to see if any trackers were places they shouldn’t be, look at the cameras that were scattered around the house for any sign of suspicious activity or his family’s whereabouts. Arm himself in case of a home invasion.

His concerns about the locations of his family members disappeared as the elevator opened and he stepped out, to be replaced with concern over the screaming match that seemed to be taking place. The voice that was yelling cut off abruptly and Tim couldn’t help the flinch that left him when Jason -- and how bizarre was that, his childhood hero returning from the grave? -- turned furious green eyes in his direction. His hands fisted automatically, longing for his bo staff, but all the older teen did was snort derisively and turn his smouldering gaze back on Bruce.

“If you don’t want my kind of training in your house, we’ll leave,” Jason told the man. Tim could see the tenseness in Bruce’s shoulders increase. Jason didn’t seem to notice or care. “You’re the one that demanded we come here. If you change your mind, we’re more than happy to get out of your hair.”

Tim’s eyes flicked to the two smaller newcomers. Mara was watching impassively, her slightly-wider-than-normal eyes giving her away. Damian was almost as tense as Bruce was, which Tim honestly didn’t think was possible in someone so young. The boy kept looking back and forth between Jason and Bruce, seeming torn. Tim forced his hands to relax -- abruptly remembering the phone he clutched and turning it off -- and stepped forward. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, only that no kid should ever look so scared and upset, not when Robin was around to help them. A hand on his shoulder halted him in his tracks.

“Bad idea,” Cass said quietly. “They have...fought for...long time. He is...angry. Sad. Afraid.”

“Who?” The girl just looked at him and Tim was practiced in Cass’ language enough to know what she meant. “Oh.”

“Yes. Wood. Gasoline. Match. Do not be....”, she wiggled her fingers as she searched for the word, “spark.”

Tim nodded slowly and looked back towards the argument. He noticed Dick for the first time, the young man awkwardly standing off to the side, looking like he wanted to intervene in the fight but didn’t know how.

“Well, someone’s got to be the water, then, because they’re getting close to a fire even without me. Where’s Alfred?”

Cass shrugged.

“Great,” Tim groaned, rubbing his face. “Why are they fighting, again?”

“Jason. Training little ones.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. Training wasn’t exactly abnormal in this house, after all.

“To kill,” she elaborated.

“Oh,” Tim said dumbly.

“Yes.”

“Well shit.”

“Yes.”


Jason was this close to leaving and damn the consequences. He’d take a horde of ninja-assassins over Bruce being a sanctimonious prick any day of the week. If it was just him in the line of fire, that is.

A furious growl burst from his throat. Why did everything have to go wrong? Did he spit in Karma’s drink in a past life? Piss off Fate somehow? Whatever he might have done, he’s pretty sure dying and having to deal with Bruce makes up for it. Speaking of, the man was still rambling about “rules” and “lines” and “we can’t become the people we fight, Jason”. Ugh.

“I’m not going to teach them an inefficient way of protecting themselves,” Jason snarled. “Incapacitation is not a guarantee, the guy could get up and kill them while they’re focused on something else. They will be safe and whoever is prowling around attacking kids doesn’t deserve the air they breath anyway so how about you take your bullshit cowardly morals and sanctimonious attitude and fuck off!”

“Master Jason!” Alfred’s voice rang through the Cave and Jason started slightly, not having noticed the elevator opening a second time. The butler stood next to the replacement and Shiva’s daughter, eyes narrowed and a bundle of mail under one arm.

The man walked towards them with short, brisk steps. “Master Bruce and Master Jason, it is far too early in the morning for this sort of thing and you are both far too old to be throwing tantrums.

Jason opened his mouth automatically to protest that he wasn’t throwing a tantrum, he was trying to prove Bruce wrong, but the eye that Alfred shot him put an end to that. From the way Bruce deflated, he probably got the look as well. Jason felt a sudden urge to cross his arms and pout, which he shook off with all the disgust the thought merited. Which was, for the record, a lot.

“Now then,” Alfred said briskly, “we are all going to head upstairs and have some breakfast. Everyone here is running on far too little sleep and it is obviously severely compromising the judgement of several people in this room.” He looked at Jason, Mara, and Damian. “I trust you will be appropriately clean and dressed.” With that command, the older man spun on his heel and marched off towards the elevator.

Jason felt his shoulders slump the minute Bruce turned away from him. God, he was tired. The rage that had been permeating his whole being only moments before was gone, taking all of his energy with it. He hated this; hated that the only way to keep his family safe was to stay; hated the way that the house, Alfred, Dick, Bruce made him feel; hated Talia being so far away and in danger; hated Ra’s for everything the man had done to them.

Akhi?”

Jason turned and looked down at Damian. “Hey kiddo.”

“Are you alright?” The boy’s eyes were wide and uncertain and Jason cursed himself for the hint of fear he saw in them.

“Yeah, I’m ok.” Lie. “Let’s just get cleaned up and head upstairs, ok? Alfie’s probably right.” Lie. “We’ll all feel better after some food.” ...Partial lie. Alfred’s food did tend to make everything at least a little better, but Jason doubted that the atmosphere would be any better up there than it was down here.

“Which clothes?” Mara asked, reaching for her duffle bag.

Jason paused, thinking. They had civilian disguises as well as their standard League attire and a few -- very few, in Mara’s case -- articles that they had chosen themselves, mostly during their time on the run. He had the most variety, several outfits he had pieced together over his years of training. The teen shrugged after a minute. “Whatever you want, it doesn’t matter here.”

A doubtful nod and Mara disappeared into the changing rooms. There was a moment of silence as Jason went over to his own bag and Damian stood to the side, duffle hooked over one shoulder.

“Jason?”

Jason looked up from where he was re-wrapping the weapons he had demonstrated with. “Yeah?”

Damian looked intensely uncomfortable, twisting his hands together. Jason took the gesture as a win, his brother becoming more comfortable with showing when he was unhappy or uncertain. It had taken a while, but the boy finally understood that Jason wouldn’t punish him for showing emotion, even ones that made him seem ‘weak’. Jason just wished he wasn’t the cause of such emotion. “Did- did you mean what you said? About us leaving?”

Jason sighed, running a hand through his hair. “It won’t happen, Dami, don’t worry. I’d be more than happy to leave if Ra’s wasn’t hunting us but he is. So we stay. Bruce won’t throw you guys out, don’t worry.” Apparently he said something wrong as Damian just wrung his hands harder.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You said Father wouldn’t throw us out. Would he throw you out?”

Jason looked at him for a moment before standing up and walking over to him. “I’m not going anywhere, kiddo,” he said, with a wryness he didn’t feel. “Go on, get changed.” He ruffled Damian’s hair as the boy walked past and he ducked, squawking and batting at the offending hand. Jason laughed and followed the pouting boy into the changing rooms.

His smile faded as soon as the door to his room clicked shut and he rested his head against the wall. Several deep breaths quelled the panic he felt rising in his chest and he roughly pulled off his training uniform, rinsing off quickly and yanking on the first clothes he laid his hands on. Just keep moving, keep focused, this place can only get to you if you let it.

He grimaced as he remembered the first time he had heard those words. Nastavnik Stipanov had been tasked with desensitising him to any environment. He had taken his job very seriously. It had been one of the easiest kills Jason had ever made.

Shaking off the memories of the past, Jason strode out of the changing room and up to his little siblings. “You guys ready?” They nodded. Jason pushed the button for the elevator and squared his shoulders. “Let’s do this.”


To say that the kitchen was tense was an understatement. Bruce focused on steadying his breathing. He needed to stay calm, losing it clearly did absolutely nothing but escalate the situation and any leverage Bruce thought he might have had had been thrown right back into his face. The man let out a long sigh and buried his face in his hands. When he had gone to bed last night -- or rather, that morning -- there had been a tiny frisson of hope fighting against all the fear and guilt and pain. Because his son was alive. And as long as there was life, there was hope. That was one of the reasons for his number one rule, and to see someone that he applied that hope to going about teaching children how to crush that hope in others? To see his son treating life so cavalierly and with such disdain? Knowing that someone had warped his child into the cold killer that he had seen in the Cave?

His next breath was a good deal less steady than he wanted it to be. A firm hand landed on his shoulder and Bruce opened his eyes and moved his hands to see a mug of steaming coffee in front of him.

“Stiff upper lip, Master Bruce,” Alfred said quietly. “We’ve weathered storms before, we can do it again.”

“Oh, God, Alfred,” Bruce moaned. “You didn’t see him. You didn’t see them. It was like...a normal day. Just normal lessons on the best ways to kill someone quickly.”

“All you need to do,” his father-figure murmured, “is remember that inside they are children. Children who have been led astray in quite possibly the worst way possible, but children nonetheless. They need your love. The way Master Damian looks at you, it is clear that he is desperate for your approval. It is equally clear that he and Miss Mara have had childhoods sorely lacking in any sort of love. And Master Jason...I truly believe he is still there. Buried, perhaps, by pain and confusion, but still there. We can bring him back, help him get through the pain and confusion.” Alfred’s eyes burned into his. “But you cannot do so if you refuse to work with him. You must focus on earning all of their trust. Then, and only then, will it be the time to address moral conundrums.”

Bruce took a minute to turn that over in his mind. Alfred nodded once and went to finish making the food, but the man barely noticed. Could he do that? Could he ignore the training to kill? Could he push it all to the side to deal with later? That had never been his way. He had always faced things head-on because if you leave it to fester behind, it could sneak up on you and take you down. And, yes, Bruce knew that his and Jason’s concerns were basically the same, though involving different mediums. The irony was not lost on him.

“Bruce?” Dick was looking at him, concern shining in his eyes. “Are you okay?”

Bruce just stared at him for a moment. “My son has been returned to me but wants nothing to do with me, I have a son and a niece I knew nothing about who are both trained to kill, and my son is further training them. It is safe to say that nothing in this situation is ‘okay’.” His voice was tight, almost as tight as his throat felt. He took a long swig of coffee to clear it up and stared up at the ceiling. “I don’t know what to do, Dick,” he said weakly. On top of everything else, he was feeling deeply uncomfortable opening up like this. But Alfred had been stressing the importance of communication and Bruce understood that. After all, it had been lack of communication that had lost him Dick for the longest time and it was probably what had driven Jason to go looking for his birth mother in the first place. But knowing something intellectually and actually trying to remedy it were two entirely different things.

Dick looked slightly startled at Bruce’s answer, but brushed it off to look encouraging. “We’ll figure it out, Bruce. We just need to give it some time. Make new bonds. Get to know Damian and Mara.”

“If I may interject,” Alfred said, setting down three plates. “We must all get to know Master Jason as well.” He held up a hand to stall their questions or protests. “People change. Master Jason has gone through a great deal of trauma and has come out the other side different. I am not saying that all of him has changed, but a good deal has. It is part of growing up and we must be careful to respect that.” He folded his hands in front of him, eyes troubled. “We will doubtless struggle to reconcile the boy we remember with the man he has become, but we must try. For all of our sakes but most especially for Master Jason.”

The moment of contemplative silence was broken when Tim came skidding into the room, now in his school uniform. “Thanks, Alfred,” he said, plopping down in his seat and digging in. He swallowed and said, “I’ve got to get to school as quickly as possible. Have to figure out which test is today.”

Bruce raised one eyebrow, momentarily derailed from his thoughts. “You don’t know which test you’re taking today?”

Tim quailed slightly at the look he was getting. “Well...I mean...not exactly…. But it’s fine! It’s totally fine, I’ll do great.”

Bruce stared at the boy over the rim of his coffee cup. “See that you do,” he said finally, putting the mug down. Tim nodded rapidly and started shoveling food into his mouth again. Bruce caught Dick’s smirk from the corner of his eye. “What?”

“Nothing,” the twenty-five-year-old said innocently. Bruce narrowed his eyes. Dick stared back for a minute before cracking. “You’re such a dad,” he said gleefully.

Bruce blinked. “What.”

“Worrying about Timmy’s grades, actually talking to us, wondering how to connect with Jason and Damian and Mara.” Dick grinned slyly. “Maybe it’s because you’re getting old.”

Bruce scowled, but they all knew it wasn’t real. “Watch it, chum, I’m not so old that I can’t take you down in training.”

Dick -- the brat -- just laughed. Tim cracked a grin as well. Bruce sighed, feeling distinctly attacked. “Don’t you have to get to work.” He absolutely did not grumble or sound in any way put out by his children laughing at him.

His eldest son shook his head, still grinning. “Nope! Called in for a family emergency. I’ve got a few days.”

Bruce huffed in annoyance but took a sip from his coffee to hide a small smile at the news.

Cass appeared next to him. “They...are coming,” she said quietly, moving to her seat. Alfred quickly put a plate down for her and she nodded her thanks.

Bruce felt his body tense up again, anxiety rising in his throat. Dick put a hand on his arm. “We’ll be fine. Just...treat them like you treat us. Talk to them. Get to know them. And...maybe apologize for blowing up in the Cave.” Bruce bristled automatically but Dick raised a calming hand. “I’m not saying what you were saying was wrong, but yelling was definitely not the right choice.”

Bruce didn’t get a chance to answer because right then the three people in question appeared in the open doorway. Bruce looked them up and down quickly. They were all dressed rather...oddly. Mara was wearing all League attire with the addition of a red hoodie, Damian had a pair of sneakers, League pants, and a plain green shirt, and Jason had army boots, black cargo pants, and a t-shirt that said ‘you only live twice!’ with a picture of a zombie. Bruce found himself gaping openly at the t-shirt for a millisecond before snapping himself into a neutral expression.

“Jason, Damian, Mara,” he said calmly. “Please, sit.” They slowly entered the room, eyeing everyone inside. Bruce noted the longing glance Jason tossed towards the far end of the table, but Alfred had already put down plates for them right next to everyone else. Is it so surprising he wants to be as far from you as possible, even if it’s just a few seats? he thought. After all, you failed him over and over again. Bruce forcibly shook the thought off. He had failed horribly in the past, but not any more. He would make this right. He could do it, he was Batm-.... No. Not Batman. Not for this.

The man took a deep breath and looked down the table at his family. He could do this, he was Bruce Wayne.

And Bruce Wayne would do almost anything to bring his family home.

Chapter Text

Jason was about ninety percent certain that he was going to shoot someone by the end of this breakfast. Some thing if they were lucky. And, as he had previously noted, apparently he had pissed off Fate in a past life so that wasn’t looking very likely. He shoved another mouthful of omelette in his mouth and glanced across the table, where Damian was sitting. The boy was poking listlessly at his food. A peek to the side showed Mara sitting ramrod straight, eating mechanically while boring holes into the replacement with her eyes. If Jason hadn’t been just as twitchy, he would have laughed at how uncomfortable the replacement was getting with Mara’s unblinking stare.

The kid gulped down the last of his coffee and pushed his chair back, eyeing Mara uneasily. “Right, so...I’ll see you all later.”

“Good luck on whatever test you’re having!” Dick called teasingly. The replacement glanced around and, not seeing Alfred, flipped the young man off. If it had been anyone else, Jason probably would have smirked at them. Since it was the replacement, he just took a sip of his own drink and watched the teen. Being met with two assassin-stares -- wait, no, three; Damian was doing it now too -- was too much for the replacement and he quickly left the room.

Jason had expected the tension in the room to drop once the replacement was gone, but if anything it got higher. His hand slowly tightened around the butter knife he held. He could tell that Mara had noticed from the way she shifted a tiny bit so she had a clearer shot at Bruce. Jason almost wanted to see that fight; tiny little Mara against the big bad Batman. It wasn’t like he would actually hurt her. Batman had a thing about hurting kids. It was one of the things Jason had once admired about him. Now it just registered as a weakness to exploit. Nevermind that he had the same weakness.

Jason forcibly shoved the train of thought over a cliff. Not the time. So very much not the time. Bruce cleared his throat and Jason stiffened, ready to move in any direction in a heartbeat. The man carefully put his knife and fork down and folded his hands on the table. All this did was make Jason more suspicious. He slowly rotated the butter knife until it was in the correct position for stabbing. Bruce looked at them all for a long moment. He almost seemed...uncomfortable? Jason’s calling bullshit, Batman didn’t get uncomfortable. He had two settings: angry and uncaring. The man opened his mouth and Jason narrowed his eyes. Whatever came out, he doubted it would be anything that would make him feel less like stabbing everyone.

“It has come to my attention that my shouting downstairs was not an appropriate course of action.” He paused for a moment before Dick unsubtly nudged him. Jason was a bit busy trying to keep his face from showing any of the shock he felt internally. Was Bruce about to...apologize? Bruce didn’t apologize. Jason didn’t even think the words ‘sorry’ ‘apologies’ ‘my bad’ even existed in his vocabulary. Bruce continued, “While I stand by what I said, the exchange should have been kept civil.” Was that a jab at him? “Therefore I would like to…” one heartbeat. Two. “apologize”, the word sounded like it had been pulled out of him but it still almost sent Jason rocking back in his seat, “for losing my temper.”

Dead silence.

Jason honestly hadn’t the faintest idea what he was supposed to do right now. Accept it? Hell no. There was an angle here that he wasn’t seeing, there had to be. He sat back in his seat carefully, projecting casualness. Maybe it was just supposed to shake him. If that was the case, it was working. And he was not happy about it.

Damian put down his own fork and straightened his spine. Oh no. “Apology accepted, Father.” NO. “Perhaps we can learn to work with each other despite our differences of opinion with regard to lethal force.” What was Damian thinking?! Jason needed to stop this before it got any more out of hand. He opened his mouth to say something that would hopefully land them all back in angry fight territory -- he could work with angry but whatever this was? It threw him off balance and he hated it -- and was cut off by a vibrating in his pocket. Jason ignored it for a minute before remembering the only person who had means to contact him. His eyes shot wide and he fumbled the phone out of his pocket.

“Talia?” He didn’t even try to hide the eagerness in his voice. Everyone else jerked to attention at the name.

“Hello, my son.”

Jason smirked as Damian leaned forward excitedly. “Are you ok?”

“I am fine, Jason. We have not been intercepted, but my father follows as we intended. Yourself?”

Jason looked at Damian and beamed, nodding. The boy lost the tension in his shoulders. “We’re...ok,” Jason said, standing up and switching to Arabic. Bruce definitely knew Arabic but it was the principle of the thing. He glanced at the kids, silently asking if they were ok with him leaving the room for a minute. They nodded and he walked out. “No one’s attacked us so far but I’m keeping my eyes open. The kids are tense, of course, but they’re rolling with it.” Once he was confident no one in the dining room or kitchen could hear him his voice became quieter, more strained. “Talia, I don’t think I can do this.”

“What part of the experience is bringing this about? Perhaps we can isolate it.” This was a common turn of phrase between them; Talia had discovered that figuring out what was bothering him could help calm him down, even if there wasn’t anything they could do about the annoyance itself.

Jason flopped down onto a couch. “It’s...everything. Being back in the house, Alfred, Dick, Barbara, the replacement, Bruce. I just-” He rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s just so much, all at once. And I can’t leave.” He realized he had switched back to English as his voice broke over the last word.

Talia’s voice was soothing as she said, “My father should be sufficiently led astray soon. I will have my agents split apart and head in different directions and hopefully he will be so busy chasing them that he does not notice our true escape. We will be together again within a month.”

“Well that’s great and all, but what about after he hunts down all the decoys? He will find us, it’s just a matter of when.”

“Pessimism does not suit you, Abn <son>,” Talia said sternly. “If it comes to that, I will dispatch my father myself.”

Jason sat up in surprise. “Wait, seriously? You’d do that?”

“There is very little in this world I would not do for my children, Jason.”

Jason let this wash over him. She had said similar things before, claimed him as her own many times, but each time it sent a wave of warmth through him. He cleared his throat. “Well, I for one would love to see you ice the guy, but wouldn’t you have to take over the League? Is that what you want?”

“Having an army of highly-trained operatives under my control and capable of undertaking almost any task I assign?” the woman asked dryly.

“Sounds like a pain in the ass if you ask me,” Jason replied, laying back down and folding one arm behind his head. “‘Sides, you’re not as nuts as Ra’s, you don’t wanna destroy most of humanity. What’d you use them for?”

“I’m sure I could come up with something. Not everything I have done over the years has been at the behest of my father, you know.”

There was a calm moment where they both just listened to each other breathing before Jason said, “But wouldn’t that ruin your chances with Bruce?”

The silence was tense now and Jason winced slightly. He opened his mouth to apologize, change the subject, but Talia spoke before he could. “I would hope that by now you are aware that I place your and Damian’s safety above any feelings I may have for your father.”

Jason cringed at the ice in her tone. “Right...sorry.”

Talia sighed, the noise coming through the phone as a rush of static. “I will forgive you your lack of tact, given the circumstances.” Jason relaxed back into the couch. “Speaking of,” he tensed back up a bit, “how bad is it?”

The teenager sighed and tugged at hair at the base of his neck. “Had an episode last night.”

“Severity?” she asked immediately.

“...seven?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?” There was a clear warning in her voice and Jason closed his eyes.

“...maybe more like an eight,” he muttered.

“You will not lie to me about this, Jason,” she said sharply. “We have been over this.”

He sighed. “I know. I just- you don’t need to be worrying about me, you’re the one out there, in danger-”

Listen well, Abn,” Talia said, in the voice that always made everyone around her sit up and take notice, “with things they way they are between you and everyone in that house you are just as much in danger as I am. The fact that the danger is not physical does not downgrade its impact.”

Jason huffed something like a laugh. “Sure.”

“You doubt me?”

Her tone prompted him to actually think about his response; half a world away or not, he had no doubt she could kick his ass if he pushed her too far. “Nah,” he finally said, pulling his arm out from behind his head and draping it over his eyes. “That’d be stupid.”

“For once you are correct,” the woman said dryly.

The snort of amusement was real this time. “So what do you suggest? I’ve got half a million plans for real-”

“Physical,” she interrupted sharply.

“-physical danger, but none for, what, emotional danger?”

“You will distance yourself from situations that guarantee a loss of control -- that is anything over a four, do you understand?” She waited for his grunt of agreement before continuing, “If you cannot distance yourself right away you will meditate and try to keep control until you are in a safe place. Keep Damian and Mara around until you pass a five, they are good for you. Call me or have someone else call me for you. How did you deal with it last night?”

“Asked someone to knock me out. Think Shiva’s daughter did it. Did you know that Shiva had a kid?! Who lives with Bruce?!”

“Of course.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“It was not important for you to know before this whole debacle and I did not get the opportunity afterwards.”

“Right because you ran off so quickly,” Jason grumbled, abruptly remembering that he had been annoyed with Talia.

“That is irrelevant at this moment. I would rather you not be rendered unconscious but if you know you are getting past a six it may be the only option, especially if you cannot contact me.”

“Got it,” Jason said tiredly.

“Good.” There was a moment of silence. “I am sorry I cannot be there.”

“Don’t be. You’re doin’ what you have to to protect us. S’not like you want to be out leading Ra’s on a merry chase.”

“True. Now, I am running out of time, let me speak with Damian.”

“Sure thing.” Jason rolled off the couch and walked back to the dining room. He poked his head in. “Hey, Dami!” The boy’s head snapped up and when Jason motioned with his head he leapt to his feet and ran over. “You want me to stay with you or you wanna talk to her alone?” Jason asked, one hand over the receiver.

Damian considered for a moment before saying, “Alone.”

“Sure, lemme just say goodbye.” Jason put the phone back to his ear. “T? Dami’s here.”

“Goodbye for today, my son. Remember what I said and stay safe. I love you.”

“I will, love you too...mom.”

His entire face burning brightly, Jason shoved the phone at Damian and marched back into the dining room.

Chapter Text

Pit Attack Severity:


1. Slightly elevated emotions and senses, basically what he lives with all the time

 

2. Harder to focus, heightened senses, some quick meditation or a quiet environment should fix

 

3. Increased difficulty in focusing, anxiety/jitters, increase in intimidation attempts


4. Lashing out verbally at small things that normally wouldn’t bother him, similar to sensory overload, more intimidation bordering on aggression


5. Similar to a light case of fear gas, i.e. paranoia, severe anxiety, shadows/movement at corners of vision, beginning of definite physical aggression


6. Hair-trigger for verbal/physical aggression for little to no reason, high anxiety, beginning of flashbacks (few seconds of a scene/smells/sounds, occurring erratically), unable to focus, loss of spatial awareness


7. Beginning of significant loss of control mentally and physically, flashbacks/hallucinations increase in severity (few seconds to two minutes long, more than one sense simultaneously)


8. Rapid loss of control, aware of losing control for up to a few minutes, beginning of memory loss, flashbacks/hallucinations lengthen (two to five minutes)


9. Short amount of awareness of control being lost, little memory of attack, flashbacks/hallucinations increase in time, occurrence, and realism


10. Complete loss of control, no memory of events, flashbacks/hallucinations take place of reality

Chapter Text

Jason was...confusing to watch. His body screamed a mix of contradictions, drawing her gaze back again and again. His tight muscles spoke of fear, his sharp eyes shouted anger, his hands sang of readiness to attack. But his angry eyes softened when he looked at the children, whispering of his love for them, his fighting hands moved to defend, his tight muscles twitched when he looked at Bruce and the only word she could think to explain it was...wanting. But Cass could not tell if the wanting was for comfort or pain, and so she kept watch.

Now that he had left the room, receiving a call that had sent a wave of excitement -- eyebrows lifting from their narrowed glare --, hope -- shoulders relaxing from their hunched position --, and happiness -- eyes sparkling blue -- through him, she could focus more fully on the others. She was familiar with her family’s movements, and so it was easy to read them: Bruce was almost as much a mess as Jason was, fists tightening in anger and eyes crying pain; Dick was tense as a violin string and trying to hide it behind incredulous joy; Tim, before he had left, had been a cacophony of scared hands and sad lips and angry eyes; and Alfred’s eyes misted with wet whenever he looked at Jason, his perfect posture disguising the quiver in his hands.

The children were harder, and more interesting. The way they sat, the way their eyes flicked from one spot to the next, always moving, never still, the way their muscles tightened just the tiniest bit whenever someone moved even slightly in their direction or a voice got just a bit too loud...it was familiar. She recognized it because the song their bodies sang was the same one hers had sung for so many years. It wasn’t as loud as her song had been, but then again she had never met another person with a song as loud as hers. That was not the confusing part. What baffled her was the trust they so obviously held for Jason. Cass had hated her teachers, had never regretted leaving them behind, but the way Damian and Mara’s bodies tightened when Jason left the room showed that he was comforting to them -- though that could be the fear of the unknown.

The love he had displayed for them was clear, and it seemed that it was returned. What she couldn’t understand was how it came about. In her mind, teacher meant hurter, even though Barbara and Bruce had helped a little in that regard. It was true that Jason’s way of teaching was far different than her instructors’, but why did he teach differently? The children had surely been taught like she had been, their songs were too close to hers for anything else, but not by Jason? She remembered that Damian had called him brother. Was that why he loved them? But then why did Jason not stop the other teachers?

She sighed softly in annoyance at the puzzle, prompting everyone to glance over at her. Bruce’s eyes met hers, silently asking for warning of a threat. She cocked her head slightly to one side and pursed her lips the smallest bit. He would notice, he always noticed her subtler gestures. His shoulders didn’t relax, but they didn’t tense more either.

“So, Damian,” Dick said. Cass slowly looked over at him, noting the way Damian stiffened to attention. Dick was smiling, as he did often. She had learned not to trust the look on his face, even more than other people. Her older brother -- the words caused a thrill to go through her, even after all this time, because she had a family , a real one -- hid his emotions nearly as masterfully as Bruce. But instead of hiding behind stillness, his mask was made of happiness, and that meant few people ever bothered trying to look beneath. But she knew. She could see the subtle stiffness of his biceps, the tiny fidgeting of his foot beneath the table, the eyes that didn’t quite sparkle. “I know that we got off to a pretty...tense start, considering everything that happened.” Damian watched silently, his body not knowing whether to prepare for fight or flight. Dick’s smile strained a little at the boy’s quiet stare. “But I’d love it if we could try and start over.” Dick stuck out his hand and Damian twitched backwards. Dick didn’t notice; she hadn’t expected him to.

“Hi, I’m Dick Grayson and I’m your big brother,” the young man said with a grin that didn’t wipe away the nervous quiver of his nose.

Damian stared at the hand for a long moment, the furrow in his brow revealing his confusion, before slowly reaching out for it. “Damian al Ghul Wayne. I was told that we were not blood.”

“Well we’re not, technically,” Dick said, the barest hint of a flicker in his eyes, “but Bruce raised me and adopted me a couple years ago so….”

“And you were the first Robin?” A hint of admiration, eyes widening just a hair.

Dick’s smile turned more real. “Yep.”

The furrow in Damian’s brow smoothed out, his expression became distant, and his chin tipped up, masquerading strength. Cass could tell before he even opened his mouth that the words that would come out would be designed to hurt. Sometimes to protect yourself, you hurt others. “Well, as the true son, I will show myself worthy to stand in my rightful place at Father’s side.” Cass noticed that Mara went as rigid as a pole at her cousin’s words. From the way her arm muscles were straining, if she had been any bigger the fork in her hand would have bent in half.

There was a beat of awkward silence. No one seemed to know what to say. Bruce cleared his throat, causing everyone to look over at him. “That is one of the things we need to discuss,” he said, carefully putting down his fork. “Damian, Dick is my true son. As is Tim, and Jason, and you. Just like Cass is my real daughter.”

Damian scowled, confusion disguised as anger hidden behind logic. “Of course they seemed that way. But you have no need for paltry stand-ins now that I am here. Now that you have a real son you no longer require the others. I assure you that I can do a better job at being your partner than anyone you have now. With Jason helping, we will have this city purged of its filth in no time!”

Bruce frowned, his body tensing in frustration. “You’re not understanding. I will not be getting rid of them just because you are here.”

Damian blinked. “Well, I suppose Cain is an admirable fighter. And Grayson was your first partner.” He cocked his head to one side slightly. “They might be helpful, but Drake certainly brings nothing to the table.” Cass could tell that there was something else, another reason that Damian didn’t like Tim, but she couldn’t tell what.

Bruce’s eyes narrowed, his fingers twitched slightly on the table. “Tim belongs here just as much as anyone. Just as much as you.”

There was another silence where Damian struggled to hide the confusion and anger and hurt he felt. “Well,” he said, sitting back and picking up his fork to stab at the cold omelette on his plate. “I see.”

***

Mara couldn’t believe this. What was Damian thinking?! Going on about how he would prove himself worthy, it was like he thought they were staying! She scowled fiercely, the fork digging into her palm. She’d have to tell Jason, maybe he could talk some sense into the boy. A small smirk grew on her face at the thought. Jason would be very upset.

As if her thoughts had summoned him, Jason poked his head into the room. “Hey, Dami!” As Damian jumped to his feet and hurried over -- running was indignified but in Mara’s opinion half-jogging wasn’t much better --, Mara studied her teacher. He looked more relaxed, the hint of a smile hovering around the corner of his mouth. Mistress Talia always had that effect on him. A pang of something she couldn’t name ran through her chest. What would that be like, she wondered, getting happy just by hearing someone’s voice. It has to be a very special someone. She had never known her father, had been dropped off at the League when she was an infant. The only time she had seen him was a glimpse in the hall as he went to offer himself up to Ra’s as a vessel. He had died soon after and the only image she ever had of him was a glimpse of white hair and pale skin. No, she had never known her father, but had spent her entire life being defined by him. For years, she had not been an al Ghul. She hadn’t even been Mara. She was ‘Dusan’s daughter’ or ‘ibnatu 'lmajhhul <daughter of the nameless one>’ or, rarely, ‘Mara Majhul’. It was only when her father died so her grandfather might live that she had received her last name, become a true person in the eyes of the League.

“Hey, you ok?” Jason asked, suddenly right beside her.

Mara blinked and came back to the present. “Fine,” she said quietly. Jason eyed her for a long moment before shrugging and sitting next to her.

“T’s doing well,” he said casually. “She told me to say hi to you.”

Mara snorted. “No she didn’t.”

“Yeaaaahhh, she didn’t.” Jason grinned down at her. “But deep, deep inside she’s thinking ‘gosh, I really hope my very special niece is doing alright’.”

Mara rolled her eyes and suppressed the automatic response that she wasn’t special. Special was for Damian, for Jason, for the people who prove themselves. All she had done was be mediocre in training and allow herself to be kidnapped.

Maybe she projected her thoughts too much, didn’t mask her face quite enough, because Jason’s grin faded as he watched her. He didn’t say anything, but ruffled her hair, prompting her to squeak and bat his hand away. The calmness in his voice was obviously straining as he turned to the other people at the table.

“So. Daughter of Shiva.”

“Cass,” the girl said quietly.

“Sure, Cass. Where did you come from?”

Mara didn’t like this Cass. Her eyes constantly followed, constantly watched. It looked like she was seeing your soul. Her voice was a hint raspy, probably because she didn’t use it a lot, and she only spoke in short phrases or single words. She could see the hint of admiration in Jason’s eyes, though, at the way she had fought. That and a good deal of suspicion along with the little squint he gets when he’s digging for information or analyzing something.

“What...mean?”

Jason leaned back in his chair, one hand folded across his stomach while the other gestured in the air. “You know, who raised you, how’d B find you, how do you have Shiva’s sight even though you’ve apparently never seen her?”

“Cain. No Man’s Land. Cain.”

Jason raised one eyebrow. “David Cain raised you? Oof. Trained with him for a bit. Not fun. How’d you get away?”

Cass frowned slightly, looking for the words. “He...not speak. Only move. That how I see. When...little...made me kill.” She shook her head. “I saw. I did not like. I left.”

Jason cocked his head. “Huh. Why Gotham?”

Cass held up both hands by her head, two fingers extended.

“Ah. So, talking is new for you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you’re doing pretty well.”

The girl tilted her head slightly in thanks and the room sat for a few moments in silence.

“So,  uh, Jason!” Mara and Jason’s heads swiveled over simultaneously to look at...Dick. Wasn’t that a crude term for male genitalia? Why would anyone want to be called that? Who would hate their child so much to give them that name? “Have you played Risk since we last saw each other? I bet I could still beat you!”

Mara had no idea what ‘Risk’ was, but Jason’s face shuttered closed immediately and he looked away, a long, slow breath hissing through his teeth before his expression became neutral.

“No.” Flat, unemotional. Mara frowned slightly and stabbed viciously at her half-eaten food. Trust these people to ruin one of Jason’s good moods.

Jason apparently had as little desire to stay in this room as she did, because he stood up and started grabbing plates. “I’m going to help Alfie,” he told her. “You can come if you wanna.”

Faced with the prospect of being left alone with The Batman, ‘Dick’, and Shiva’s daughter, Mara grabbed her own dishes and followed Jason eagerly. He directed her to the compost as he placed his pile of dishes in the sink.

“Is the food not to your liking, Miss Mara?” a calm voice asked behind her as she was scraping off her plate. She jumped at the unexpected noise and spun automatically, fork poised for stabbing, but Jason took one large stride and caught her wrist.

“Easy, half-pint. ‘S just Alfred. He’s the one we like.”

Mara slowly relaxed and Jason released her arm. “Apologies,” she said quietly.

“No harm done, Miss Mara. Would you like something else to eat, perhaps? Is there something in that dish you do not favor?” The man didn’t seem phased by his near-injury.

Mara glanced at her now-empty plate, then at Jason who nodded encouragingly. “It’s very plain,” she finally said. Jason seemed to be struggling to maintain a straight face, which she didn’t understand.

Alfred raised both eyebrows a tiny bit. “Indeed?”

“Well, I guess compared to what you’re used to,” Jason said, mouth twitching. “And Alfred is British. You know, invaded half the world for spices and decided they didn’t like any.”

The older man raised one eyebrow high up his forehead. Jason didn’t seem to be fazed, chuckling a bit at his own joke.

“Perhaps you would enjoy some curry, I seem to recall that had a...lasting impression on you in the past,” Alfred said dryly.

Jason grinned slightly. “I’ve been living all over the place for a couple years, Alfie. My palate has expanded and my stomach toughened considerably.”

The man hummed. “Perhaps we could further discuss your newly-acquired tastes over a game of Rummy.”

Jason’s face brightened. “Sure! Maybe we can teach Mara?”

“Of course, allow me to finish the dishes and-”

“Allow us to finish the dishes, Alfie,” Jason interrupted, moving over beside the man. “Has four years really messed with your memory that much?”

Alfred lightly swatted him on the shoulder with a dish towel and Jason laughed. Mara’s eyes widened. She hadn’t heard Jason truly laugh in what felt like ages, certainly not with anyone other than her, Damian, and Mistress Talia. She watched Jason closely, noting the crinkles at the corners of his eyes that only showed up when he was really happy. Was this Alfred another someone like Mistress Talia to Jason? They weren’t even related as far as she could tell, the old man was a servant for crying out loud! But she supposed Mistress Talia and Jason weren’t actually related either. She had claimed him, perhaps Alfred had done the same?

It was a few minutes later, when they were dealing out the cards and Jason was ruffling her hair in congratulations for a good set, that Mara realized. Jason had claimed her. He was her someone. She stared up at him and he smiled down at her, raising one eyebrow in question. She didn’t say anything, going back to her cards, a small smile on her face. Jason was her someone, and there was no one else in the world she would rather have.

Chapter Text

Damian pressed the phone to his ear eagerly. “'um <Mother>?”

Marhabaan, Damian. hal 'ant bihalat jayd <Hello, Damian. Are you well>?”

The boy smiled at his mother’s voice. “'ana bikhayr <I am fine>.” The grin faded slowly and he lowered his voice a little, walking away from the dining room. “'ana qalaq ealaa Jason raghm dhlk <I worry about Jason though>.”

Her voice sharped with what he knew was concern. “madha hdth <What happened>?”

yuharib mae aljamie, kama law kan yatamatae biha <He fights with everyone, as if he enjoys it>.”

She didn’t seem surprised by the news, her voice returning to its usual calm. “yjb 'an tatawaqaf baed bdet 'ayam <That should stop after a few days>.”

Damian wasn’t quite sure about that, but he figured his mother would know better than him. “'iidha qult dhlk <If you say so>.”

His mother abruptly switched to English for no reason Damian could see. “I don’t have much time, so listen carefully. I have already discussed this with Jason but you need to be prepared as well.”

“What is it?”

“You must know what to do during his episodes, the times when the Pit takes control.”

Damian’s eyes widened. “It is the Pit that causes them?” He had wondered, but had never seen his grandfather affected in such a way, and he had been using the Pits for years.

“Yes. Jason and I have a system and I have ensured that he understands the threat he poses, both to himself and to you.”

“Jason would never hurt me,” Damian protested.

Her voice cut like a knife. “But the Pit would. Do not dismiss what I am saying, my son.”

Damian hunched his shoulders. “Of course, Mother.”

“If Jason tells you to leave him, you must obey him. Do you understand?”

“But-”

“No exceptions,” she barked. “He will keep you with him for as long as possible but if he tells you to leave him, you will. You will do whatever he tells you and if he is incapable of ordering you, you will leave anyway. Lock him in a room if possible and then call me. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mother,” Damian whispered. He remembered on the ferris wheel, how Jason had hit Mother without hesitation, how he had clawed at his own head.

“Thank you.” Mother sounded calmer now. “I am sorry for shouting, Damian. This is very important. Jason would not be able to live with himself if something happened to you.”

Damian nodded slightly. She was right. Jason reacted so strongly when he thought they were in danger from others, if the danger was brought about by himself...Damian didn’t know how he would react. “I understand.”

“If he suddenly needs to meditate, do not question it, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Keep everyone away and try to keep the environment calm. If he tells you to knock him out, you must do so immediately. There might not be time for you to get to safety. Jason knows his limits, do not doubt him or hesitate. Contact me immediately if he orders you to leave or knock him out.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Repeat your instructions back to me.”

Damian blinked. She had not asked him to do that since he turned six. “Leave Jason when he tells me to or if he can’t speak, lock him in a room if possible and call you. If he needs to meditate, make sure he can, no matter where or when. If he tells me to knock him out, do so immediately because I might not have time to get away. Remember that he knows his limits. Call you right away if any of this happens.”

“Good.” Mother sounded like a weight had been taken off her shoulders, which made Damian considerably nervous.

“Do you think I will need to do this?”

Mother sighed. “Staying in that house? Most definitely.”

There was a long moment of silence as Damian digested that and struggled to decide whether to ask what he was thinking or not. “Mother?”

“Yes, Abni?”

“Last night Jason said something…about you and Father.”

***

Bruce sat in front of the batcomputer and began clicking through the security database. The cursor hovered over that day’s file and he paused for a moment before selecting it. He had to know what Jason had said to Talia. He had to know if his son was going to be a danger to his other children or if Jason was going to take Damian and Mara and leave. The man skipped to the correct time and pressed play, watching carefully as the living room came into focus on the screen. There was a few moments of silence before Jason walked and flopped on the couch.

“What are you doing?” Dick’s voice asked, breaking Bruce’s concentration. He turned his head a little bit as he paused the footage.

“I need to know what they were saying.”

“You can’t just do that!” Dick protested, coming to stand beside the chair. “That’s a major breach of privacy!”

“I have to know if he’s really planning on going through with his threats.”

“Bruce, if he finds out about this he’s going to be even more angry.”

“I can’t leave this up to chance.”

“B, I know it’s Talia. And you know what I think about her, but...Jason doesn’t just trust anyone.” A moment of silence. “...you heard what he called her, I’m sure.”

Bruce didn’t answer, staring silently up at the screen. Of course he heard. The word had been tormenting him for hours. And the way he had said it...the way he had talked to her…. He had sounded like his old self, and Bruce hated that Talia was the one who brought that out in his son.

“Talia has clearly been good to him-”

“Or brainwashed him,” Bruce growled.

Dick sighed. “Either way, Jason obviously didn’t want us to hear their conversation. Maybe we should respect that. Show a little trust.”

“He threatened to kill Tim yesterday and almost shot you,” Bruce said darkly.

Dick rubbed a hand over his face. “True. But…” he made a frustrated noise. “Just promise me you won’t do anything drastic, alright?”

The only response he got was a grunt and Dick threw his hands in the air and marched away.

Bruce’s face fell as he listened to Jason’s one-sided conversation. His son was obviously very uncomfortable and even anticipated an attack. The fact that he didn’t feel safe in his own home made a vise clench around his heart. Bruce was pretty sure the numbers Jason mentioned were levels of severity. If the episode he had last night was an eight...how high did the numbers go? Bruce added a note to the file he had created and continued listening. The vice continued to tighten as he listened to Jason talk. Bruce didn’t want to put his son in any kind of danger. He wanted the exact opposite. He wanted to protect him, to help him heal from the horrible things he went through. Bruce rested one hand over his eyes, pretending that the burning was just caused by staring at the screen too long. Maybe Dick had a point, Jason was clearly not expecting anyone to hear this conversation and Bruce couldn’t help the guilt that twisted in his gut. But Batman emphasized the importance of this information. The family’s safety was more important than Jason hating him.

He sucked in a deep breath and fast-forwarded to Damian’s conversation. Now concern caused wrinkles to appear in his forehead. It was clear Talia had given the boy marching orders, and they did not paint a good picture. Jason was obviously unstable and dangerous, even to Damian, who he clearly loved. That did not bode well for the rest of them. The comment about meditation helped clear things up a bit. It seemed like these episodes did not just come out of the blue. They were caused by heightened emotions, likely anger. Perhaps they could avoid more of them entirely by keeping Jason as happy and calm as possible. It was worth a shot anyway. He’d have to update the others.

***

The next four days passed quietly, if stiffly. There was a good deal of dancing around and avoiding stepping on toes. Well, except for Jason, who was quite fond of the constipated faces everyone made when he made a comment about the League or broke out a new shirt. But aside a stray comment now and then he kept his mouth shut as much as possible, hanging out with Alfred and focusing on Damian and Mara. Talia called every day, though she could only stay on for a few minutes, just enough time to get an update on him and the kids. Speaking of, something was going on with the two of them. Jason was pretty sure it had to do with the way Damian acted around Bruce. It was getting on his nerves too, but he knew that Damian had a lot of conditioning to get through. As long as the kid didn’t get any ideas about staying, it’d be fine.

He was browsing the library when the Replacement was literally dragged in by Bruce. He felt his fingers automatically tightening on the cover of Dracula and he forced himself to stay very still.

“Bruuuuuce,” the kid whined as the man deposited him in a chair and sat down opposite him. A backpack was placed with a thump on the table between them.

“No, Tim. We’re going to sit here until you actually finish your assignments.”

“But that’ll take forever! I’ve go-”

“Then we better get started, huh?”

Tim tried to thunk his head on the back of the couch, but failed miserably, only sinking into the cushion. “Bruce, please. I’m doing fine.”

“You are passing, nothing else.”

“Ugggh if you just let me drop out and get my GED this wouldn’t be a problem!”

Bruce raised one eyebrow. “Are you trying to blackmail me?” He sounded utterly unimpressed. Tim glanced at his face and cringed slightly.

“Um. No?”

“Good. Now, what’s first?”

Tim sighed heavily and reached for his backpack. Bruce wasn’t going to cave anytime soon. Maybe he’d get bored if he stretched out all the explanations of what he was doing? A peek at the calm, unhurried look on Bruce’s face dispelled that notion rapidly. He had a sinking feeling that if he wanted to patrol tonight, he’d better have his work done. Tim flopped his chemistry book -- turns out that test is next week -- on the table and lethargically flipped it to the right page. He had to read fifteen pages of this but maybe Bruce wouldn’t notice the study-guide jammed into his- a rustling noise made him look up. Bruce was digging through his bag and triumphantly pulled out the study guide.

“Once you’re done reading we can go over this together.”

“How’d you know that was there?!”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I contacted your school and got a list of your assignments.”

“Of course you did,” Tim muttered, going back to his book.

The sound of muffled footsteps made both of them look up. Jason was walking past, a thick book held in one hand. He wasn’t looking at them, resolutely striding towards the door. Tim felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, like they always did around the three assassins. They hated him, he didn’t know why but they did. He scowled, looking back down at his book. The feeling was beginning to be mutual.

“Jason!” Bruce said, getting that hopeful look he always did when looking at Jason. Tim sullenly turned a page. It was like Bruce just forgot how Jason had threatened to kill them all. Several times. Jason turned, a cold look on his face like always. He was wearing a black shirt that said ‘DEAD INSIDE’ in red letters, and Tim watched Bruce’s face drop slightly, like it always did when he remembered Jason’s death. Which was often. Hard to forget with zombie shirts everywhere.

“Yes?” Jason asked flatly.

Bruce floundered for a moment. “What are you reading?”

“Dracula.”

“Ah, yes. You were quite fond of that.”

“I sympathize more with Dracula now. You know, with the whole undead thing.”

Jason didn’t even try to hide his smirk as Bruce flinched. It was too easy, honestly. Soothed the sting of seeing Bruce and the Replacement acting like…. The smirk became a little forced and he saluted with two fingers, leaving the room quickly. Not thinking about it because if he thought about it he might just kill the Replacement and that would make everything more complicated.

Mara was sharpening her knives when he entered their room. She looked up and brightened when she saw him. “Jason.”

“Hey Mara.” He dropped the book on the bed and pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket. Nothing. Shoving down a feeling of unease, he pocketed the phone again. He knew she hadn’t called yet, he had the ringer on the highest setting at all times and constantly carried it with him, but he kept checking. Just in case.

“Mistress Talia has not yet called?” Mara asked, putting away her whetstone.

“Nah, not yet. It’s fine, she’s called later than this before,” Jason answered.

Mara hummed, sheathing her blades. There was a moment of quiet.

“You wanna go outside?” Jason asked, abruptly feeling like he might explode if he had to stay in the Manor one minute longer.

Mara blinked. “I was not aware that was an option.”

“Yeah, the Wayne property is huge. Surrounded by a big-ass wall too. We can go for a hike, do some environment-specific training?” He smirked. “Or just play some hide and seek.”

Mara’s eyes sparkled at the idea and she jumped to her feet. “Yes!”

Jason laughed and wrapped an arm around her as they walked out the door. “Let’s grab Damian and blow this popsicle stand!”

Mara squinted. “Popsicle stand?”

“Uh, yeah, it’s a saying. Like, let’s get out of here.”

“Oh,” she nodded. “...why a popsicle stand?”

“I...actually don’t know.”

A few minutes later and they were going out the kitchen door, bags in hand because you never miss the chance to learn something new in the League and you certainly never went anywhere without your weapons.

“What are we going to do?” Mara asked.

Jason had a glint in his eye that Damian was not entirely comfortable with. “Have you guys ever tried hitting a target while hanging upside down from the top of a tree?”

“Who taught you how to do that?” Damian asked after a moment of processing this bizarre question. The grass under their feet turned to dirt and moss as they entered the tree-line.

“Hm? Oh, uhhh I think her name was Soria Alvarez. Kinda crazy. She tied me to the top of the tree for a few hours when I kept losing my balance ‘cause of dizziness. Couldn’t see for a while when she got me down. But hey! Now I can do stuff upside down.” He glanced at them. “I’m not gonna do that to you.” Damian hadn’t been worried about that, he knew Jason was very careful to never hurt them -- aside from a few bruises and small cuts now and then.

They kept walking, leaves crunching under their feet, the crisp wind batting at their faces, until Jason deemed they were far enough into the trees. “Ok!” He cracked his knuckles. “Whoever gets the first hit on the target gets to choose who’s it for hide and seek.” Identical shark grins spread across their faces and Jason laughed. “Grab a couple knives and let’s go!” He pointed up at a towering pine. “Way up top.”

They climbed until they couldn’t anymore, the branches swaying dangerously beneath them, sap making their hands sticky and the air smell even more strongly of pine. Jason, naturally, was a bit lower than Damian and Mara. He grinned up at them and hooked his knees over the branch, letting himself fall back until his spine was straight, head towards the ground. “Copy me,” his slightly muffled voice said. They did, much more carefully than Jason had. Mara immediately felt the blood rushing to her head but ignored it.

“Right,” Jason said. “So the target is there, can you see it?”

“Yes,” they chorused, the X Jason had slashed into a tree easily picked out by their sharp eyes.

“Excellent. So, you have to make sure to consider the wind and the different angles that come in to play. This is like second nature to you right-side-up but you really gotta think about it now.” Jason pulled a knife out of his bandolier. “Make sure you know if you’re moving back and forth at all from the tree or dizziness. I tend to lean too far right.” He took a moment to just breathe, feeling the way his body swayed slightly with the tree’s movement and the light pounding in his head from the inverted position. Then he exhaled and snapped his arm forward. A moment of silence followed by a thud showed he had hit the tree, about a foot from the X. “As you can see, it’s not easy.” Jason narrowed his eyes and pulled out another blade. “Which is why you have more than one knife.” He repeated the process and this time hit the top of the X. One more shot had the knife nailing the middle of the target. Jason grinned and pulled himself upright, blinking away the feeling of blood rushing from his head. “Ok! Sit up for a second, let your blood go back where it’s supposed to be. Then we’ll see who gets to pick.”

They took a few minutes to let any dizziness subside and then Mara volunteered to go first, a second before Damian did. She smirked at the boy and Jason rolled his eyes. It looked like they’d never stop competing. But hey, their competitiveness was good for their training so as long as no one got hurt he didn’t mind. Mara made sure her knees were firmly locked around her branch before slowly rolling down until she was straight. She closed her eyes, feeling the way her body was working in this new position and accepting the tree as an extension of herself. “Ready,” she said, opening her eyes. Jason was standing on his branch now, bringing his head near hers, and he backed away when she said that.

“Great, go ahead.”

Mara inhaled slowly and drew her knife back. It felt weird upside down and she had to make sure her wrist remained straight. The dizziness was coming back and she pushed it away, narrowing her eyes at the target. Her arm whipped forward halfway through her exhale and the knife went flying. She winced at the unmistakable sound of metal ricocheting off wood as her knife went spinning a few feet into the trees.

“Not bad! My first try I missed the tree entirely.” Jason was eyeing her, a hint of concern showing in his voice as he said, “You wanna sit up now? We’ll let Damian have a shot and you can rest for a bit.”

She gritted her teeth. “No.”

Jason raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“I can do this.”

“Mara-” he started, but she was already drawing her second knife. Her head was starting to pound now, and she screwed her face up in concentration as she went through the steps, breathe in, bring the knife back, breathe out, throw. The blade missed entirely this time and she made a frustrated noise, grabbing for her bandolier. One big hand plucked the knife from her fingers and an arm wrapped around her waist, hoisting her bodily off the branch. She squeaked in surprise as she was sat down on another branch, eye to eye with Jason, who did not look happy. “What’s the first rule when learning something new?” he demanded.

“I’m fine-” she began to protest.

What,” he started again, words clipped, “is the first rule?”

She avoided his eyes and mumbled, “Safety first.”

“Safety first,” he agreed sharply. “We’re like forty feet up, Mara! You fall off that branch and you will die.”

“I can do it!” she yelled.

“I have no doubt about that! But you can’t master it in three tries and you certainly can’t do it if you break your neck!” She looked away and he huffed an annoyed breath. “Damian, it’s your turn. If you need or want to rest, you will rest. Both of you.”

Damian looked between them and awkwardly slid down his branch. Any other time he would have been laughing -- or at least smirking -- at Mara for failing and getting Jason to yell at her, but Jason did not look like he would put up with that right now so the boy remained silent and pulled out his weapon. The knife did hit the tree, but it struck a good six feet above the target and bounced off. Damian grimaced and pulled himself up, shaking his head a little from the feeling.

“Good,” Jason said, squinting down at the target. “Keep your wrist a little more rigid next time and remember to account for the tree moving in the wind.” He raised an eyebrow at Mara. “Are you ok to try again?” She nodded, still not looking at him. “Right, same goes for you. It looked like you focused so much on the tree’s movement you didn’t pay as much attention to the wind itself. That’s ok. Give it another go.” She jerked her head in a nod and climbed back onto her branch.

After a few more minutes and a lot more knives, Damian managed to stick a hit to the corner of the X. He grinned victoriously and Jason gave him a jubilant high-five.

“Nice hit!”

The three of them scrambled down the tree and Jason took a swig from a canteen before tossing it to Mara. He walked over to their target and yanked his knives out of the bark. The teen pursed his lips slightly as he ran a finger along the blade. He’d have to sharpen them tonight, get rid of any nicks. A glance back showed Damian drinking from the canteen and Mara collecting her knives. Jason leaned against the tree they had climbed and waited while the kids found all their weapons and returned them to their sheathes before speaking. “How we callin’ it, Damian?”

“I shall be it,” the eight-year-old stated pompously. Jason inclined his head slightly. He hadn’t expected anything else.

“Normal rules apply,” he said, pulling off his bandolier and tucking it back into his duffle. While Damian and Mara did the same, he glanced quickly at the burner phone. Nothing. Jason chewed on his lip as he put the phone back in the bag. It was fine, it was only three o’clock, she had called later than this only two days ago. She was probably on the move. Damian and Mara were looking at him expectantly and he shoved his worries to the back of his mind. “Hand to hand only, base is this tree,” he said, patting the X. “When you’re ready, Damian.”

Damian sat down at the foot of the tree and closed his eyes. “Begin.”

Jason immediately tore off into the trees, moving quickly but as silently as possible. Ninja hide and seek was a bit different than the normal thing, it wouldn’t have kept their attention otherwise, so he had no qualms about climbing into a tree and working his way slowly back towards base. Damian had disappeared. Jason narrowed his eyes slightly. He could jump to another tree, but all the training in the world couldn’t change the fact he was about 6’ 2” and over two-hundred pounds. There was no way he could do so silently. A careful scan of the surrounding trees showed no sign of anyone, and he slowly edged his way downward, stopping at every branch to watch for movement. Damian loved ambushes, it was one of those things that seemed like it would be ‘dishonorable’ but no, the League was obsessed with them.

His feet touched the ground gently, pine needles shifting under his boots but not making noise like leaves would. ‘s one of the reasons he chose here to do this. His every sense was strained, eyes following every shift of shadows, ears catching every chitter from squirrels and birds. He stepped cautiously away from the trunk, eyeing a tree that apparently held a squirrel. He fucking hated the way Damian could mimic sounds and voices. Not only did it help him in situations like this, but Jason still had not forgotten the time Damian had mimicked Talia’s voice in the middle of the night.

Jason edged towards the direction Mara went, sticking close to the trees with his eyes peeled. If he could take Mara out of the game, it would make it that much easier to win. The little gremlins might have teamed up, it’s the strategy he would have chosen, going up against a much bigger opponent. An especially loud chitter had his head snapping to the left. It was...an actual squirrel. He relaxed slightly.

He should have known better.

Mara leapt out of a tree, slamming into his shoulder and sending him staggering. He recovered quickly though, and the girl had to cling to his neck, twisting her body like a fish on a hook to stop him from grabbing her ankles.

“How the hell,” Jason panted, spinning around, “did you get an actual squirrel to help you? That’s just not fair.”

Mara didn’t bother answering, focusing on holding on and avoiding his grasp. She tightened her grip on his throat but he was so big it wasn’t very effective. It took her a moment to realize he had stopped talking and his arms were no longer trying to grab her. The back of her neck prickled and she caught a glimpse of his smirk as he grabbed her hands. Instead of pulling her off of him, like she expected, he pinned her arms in place and rocked back on his heels. Mara squeaked in surprise as he went past his point of balance. Oh no. She scrambled to get free but his hands were like iron bands and she had less than a second before she’d be trapped under him. She decided to take advantage of his grip and braced her feet against his back, kicking off and over his head. It hurt her wrists, sure, but it got Jason to let go after a second and she didn’t get squished by two-hundred pounds of muscle so Mara was counting it as a win.

Jason didn’t stay on the ground for long though, and she had to dodge his leg sweep and follow up tackle. Small and light, she reminded herself, Jason’s voice echoing through her mind. Fast and agile. She ran up a tree trunk and flipped over his head. Her kick to his skull was blocked by a forearm. He retaliated by grabbing her ankle and hurling her away. She skidded across the ground on the balls of her feet and tips of her fingers. She didn’t wait to catch her breath before charging forward, dropping into a slide and lashing out at his leg. Jason barely moved from the strike, twisting around and trying to pin her down with his foot. He probably would have succeeded too, if Damian hadn’t appeared from the shadows and aimed a flying kick at his face. Jason leaned back to dodge the blow and Mara nailed him in the back of the knee, making his leg buckle and him stagger. It was enough, and the two kids rained a hail of attacks on Jason. He blocked as best he could but soon found himself on the ground with his face being shoved into pine needles. He chuckled.

“Ok, I’m dead, I’m dead, lemme up.” Damian climbed off his back and Mara moved off his legs. Jason said up and ran a hand through his hair, dislodging pine needles and dirt. All three of them were panting and had wide grins on their faces. “Nice job guys. I’m still wondering though,” he pointed at them, “how the f- heck did you get a squirrel to help you?! Is one of you secretly a meta?”

“A master never reveals their secrets,” Damian said infuriatingly while Mara smirked. Jason rolled his eyes and flopped back on the ground.

“Yeah, yeah.” He tucked his hands behind his head and said casually, not looking at them, “So, just checking, you two are cool with tying?” He grinned at the moment of dead silence. Three, two- a voice broke the playful tension that had been building.

“What are you three doing?”

Jason shot into an upright position, hand twitching towards his belt...which was empty. Dammit. Dick was standing a few yards away, hands on his hips. The white bandage wrapped around his arm, the result of a run-in with a knife last night, drew Jason’s gaze. A potential weakness. Jason rose slowly to his feet, eyes never leaving the young man. “Not that it’s any of your business, but we were...training.” No way would he say ‘playing’, even if it was the truth. Not to anyone in this house.

Dick raised an eyebrow. “Outside?”

Jason gave him an unimpressed look. “Well yeah, I mean, not everyone needing to be assassinated will be indoors.”

Dick ignored the bait. “Without telling anyone?”

Jason slowly tilted his head to one side and raised one eyebrow.

Dick sighed explosively. “Just...tell Alfred next time, maybe? Everyone freaked out when we couldn’t find you and all your stuff was gone.”

“Aww.” Jason’s smirk was poisonous. “You do care.”

His jaw tightened and Jason relished in it. “You may not believe it, but yes.”

“Be still my beating heart,” the teen said mockingly, pressing a hand to his chest.

Apparently Dick decided that ignoring him was the best course of action, because he turned to Damian and Mara and smiled slightly. “What were you guys training in?”

“Jason was teaching us how to throw knives,” Mara said guardedly.

“Oh,” Dick looked surprised but was obviously trying to hide it. “That’s cool!”

Damian scoffed, obviously picking up on the surprise. “We already know how to throw them normally,” he said, his tone showing exactly how obvious the statement was to him. “Akhi was showing us how to do it inverted from the top of a tree.”

Dick blinked slowly. “...why would you need to know that?” He looked at Jason, who shrugged.

“Why not?”

“Right...ok…. How ‘bout we head back, huh? It’s almost time for dinner and I’m sure Alfred is going to make you clean up first.”

The kids looked at Jason and he sighed. “Yeah, sure, whatever. You guys can be tied for today, midgets.”

They collected their bags and Jason looked at the burner phone once more before tucking it into his pocket. Still nothing. He took a deep breath and walked after the others, who were waiting for him by the path. It was fine.

Chapter Text

It was not fine. It was very much not fine. Jason growled in frustration at the phone clutched in his hand, then at the clock reading 11:58. He paced back and forth, one hand pulling at his hair. Damian was glancing over at him with large eyes that couldn’t quite hide his fear, even as he pretended to be absorbed in a kata. Jason looked at the clock again. 11:59. He let out a shout of anger and drove his fist into a conveniently-placed punching bag. Mara was watching him as well, sliding her whetstone endlessly over her throwing knives, though any nicks or scratches had been long-fixed by now. They were in the Cave, even though they had no real reason for being there. No one asked and Jason certainly wasn’t volunteering. Dick was at the computer -- he had one night left before his arm was well enough to patrol again -- and Jason could feel his concerned gaze on the back of his neck.

Jason closed his eyes, clenching his fists and trying to calm the energy that raced through his muscles. He needed to do something. He couldn’t just stand here while Talia was in danger. She might already be dead for all he knew.

The thought caused another dose of panic to rush through him. He couldn’t lose another mother. He couldn’t. And what about Damian? Bruce would take him, there was no question about that, and Jason would probably never see him again. His breathing quickened. No. He would not let that happen. A glance at the clock. 12:00.

alttabiq aleulwi, alaistiedad lilkhuruj <Upstairs, prepare to move out>!” he barked, striding towards the elevator. Damian and Mara leapt to their feet, staring after him in shock.

“Madha <What>? Akhi!”

Jason slammed his fist against the elevator button and glared at them. “Move it!” Mara grabbed her bandolier and whetstone, Damian snatched up his shoes, and they ran over to him.

“Woah, what’s going on?” Dick asked, standing up. “Where are you going?”

Jason shot him a venomous look and didn’t reply. The elevator opened silently and the three stepped inside. Nothing happened. Jason jabbed the ‘close’ button a few times but the doors remained stubbornly open. His green-tinted glare landed on Dick, who was standing by the computer, arm half-raised from where he had hit the Cave’s lockdown alarm. The young man watched Jason warily as he touched his hand to his ear and said, “We’re fine, B. Jason was trying to leave with Damian and Mara and wouldn’t tell me where. I was being cautious.” Jason snarled furiously and Dick’s eyes narrowed. “Uh huh, ok great, see you in a bit.” He lowered his hand from the comm just in time for Jason to crowd up into his space.

“Turn it off,” he growled.

Dick crossed his arms and stared up at Jason. God, when had his little brother gotten so big? “No can do, Little Wing. B says we should all stay right here. No need to do anything...drastic.” Was it just Dick, or did Jason’s eyes just get a bit more green? The teenager opened his mouth and Dick was bracing himself for anything -- including being physically attacked -- when the intercom on the wall came to life.

“Master Dick,” Alfred’s calm voice said. “I seem to be unable to access the Cave.”

Jason seemed to actually deflate on hearing the old man’s voice, so Dick felt safe enough in tapping the intercom and saying, “We’re ok, Al. Just making sure everyone stays put. Bruce is on his way back.”

“I see. I shall prepare some refreshments then,” the man said.

“Thanks, Al.”

Dick studied Jason carefully, unsure what the teenager’s next move would be. He half-thought the calming thing was an act, a trick to get his guard down, so he was very surprised when Jason stalked away, snapping, “I need to meditate,” over his shoulder.

Damian immediately came forward, towing Mara along behind him. From the look on Mara’s face, Damian was very lucky she wasn’t sticking one of her many knives into him. “We must remain here,” the boy said in his usual pompous tone. “Jason needs quiet.”

“Right,” Dick said, looking over and watching Jason sink down onto the training mat. “That’s what he needs.”

***

Jason settled himself cross-legged on the floor, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply, struggling to let go of the panic that filled him. He exhaled slowly, focusing on the way his chest moved, how the air felt over his lips, the gentle pull on his leg muscles from his position. He let himself register the quiet voices off to the side, but dismissed it in favor of counting his heartbeats, not moving until they slowed to their normal speed. It had taken him and Talia ages to find a meditation technique that worked for him. The types that tried to get you to release your mind of all thought were an automatic no. It had only taken one disastrous try to realize that when he was silent, the Joker and the Pit were loud. He was convinced that meditation was something he simply couldn’t do, but Talia had refused to give up. He had been introduced to different methods from almost every new teacher and hated every single one until, finally, when he was in India, it clicked.

It seemed obvious, looking back, that trying to clear his mind wouldn’t work. Jason liked action, he was always moving, planning, occupying himself with something. His mind was a minefield that not even he knew how to cross safely. His body, on the other hand, was something he had spent years getting to know. He knew exactly how it would react in any given situation. There were no surprises. His fingers twitched, the healed bones creaking slightly, as Damian and Mara’s voices rose in volume, but he forced them out of his mind. As long as he focused on his body, how it was working and what it was saying to him, he could quiet his mind without losing control.

It was around ten minutes later that the roar of an engine shattered the relative quiet of the Cave. Jason did not move or react in any way, carefully focusing on his meditation for a few more minutes before he let his eyes slide open. Bruce was still in full uniform, talking quietly with Dick by the computer. As he watched, the men glanced briefly over at him. Jason slowly rose to his feet and walked over, giving them plenty of time to finish their conversation.

“Jason,” Bruce greeted warily.

“Batman,” he replied blandly.

“Why did Dick lock down the Cave?”

“Living up to his name?” he quipped. He could see Bruce’s eyes narrowing even behind the mask.

“My mother did not call today,” Damian inserted from the back. Jason felt his jaw tightening and could hear Mara hissing angrily behind him. “She promised to call every day.” If  Jason couldn’t hear the slight quivering in his little brother’s voice, he probably would have blown up right then and there. As it was he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, focusing on the feeling of his fingers tapping on his thigh. When he felt calmer again, he opened his eyes and glared at Bruce -- when had he taken off the cowl?

“We’re going after her,” he said, watching as Bruce’s eyes turned to steel.

“No, you are not.”

Jason laughed. “You can try and stop me, but I wouldn’t count on your odds.” It wouldn’t be clean or easy, but he had desperation and no qualms about lethal force on his side. He could manage.

“You think Talia is in danger,” Bruce stated.

“Give the man a prize.”

“And yet you want to bring Damian and Mara into that danger?”

That made Jason come to a screeching halt. He stared blankly at Bruce for a moment. “Safer with me than without,” he finally said.

“Safer here.”

“So, what, you want me to just leave her?” He scoffed. “I should have expected this from you. You want her to die, to get out of the way. That way you don’t have to worry about her taking Damian away from you again!”

Bruce didn’t flinch but Jason could hear Damian suck in a sharp breath behind him. It fit right in with the blood pounding in his ears. He rounded on the boy. “What?”

Damian ducked his head and normally Jason would feel guilty for scaring him, but there was way too much happening in his head right now for this to be ‘normal’. Mara glanced back and forth between them for a long moment before blurting, “Damian thinks we are staying here!”

Jason blinked at her for a few moments. “What.”

Damian was staring at Mara, looking both horrified and furious. Mara shot him a glare. “He thinks we are staying! He was talking about proving himself as the true son, the only worthy one to stand by The Batman.”

Jason’s hands clenched convulsively and he closed his eyes, vainly trying to calm down. “There is so much wrong with that sentence I don’t even know where to start. Oh wait, I do.” He rounded on Bruce. “If you even think for one second about letting Damian on the streets at any point, I will eviscerate you and hang you from Wayne Tower by your intestines.”

He turned to glare at Damian. “But he won’t even have the chance to think about that because we. Are. Not. Staying.” Jason stared down at the boy. “You really think Bruce would let someone with your background fight beside him?” Damian’s eyes widened. Jason could see Dick stiffen out of the corner of his eye. “He’ll never really trust you. You’ve crossed the line, broken the rule.” A noise almost like a chuckle crossed his lips and he bent down slightly to face Damian. “And that rule is the most important thing to him. There’s no going back once you have blood on your hands.” Jason stood up straight again. “You have to make a choice, Damian. Bruce, or your mom and me.” He didn’t even wait to see Damian’s face crumple, whirling around and striding away, towards the elevator. “Stop me again and I’ll shoot you,” he snapped over his shoulder.

They let him go.

Jason could feel his breath coming faster and he pressed a hand to the side of the elevator. Cold metal under his palm, not wood. Fresh air from the vent by the ceiling, not stale from his breath and panic. He was standing, could walk two paces if he chose to; not trapped, just waiting for the right floor.

The elevator came to a halt and he bolted out the doors, almost slamming into Alfred, who was carrying a tray with sandwiches and drinks. The man’s cry of, “Master Jason!” was lost in the pounding of his ears, matching the thudding of his boots on the hardwood floor. Still too cramped, still too small, still couldn’t breathe. The kitchen door crashed open and he vaulted over the low wall that separated Alfred’s herb garden from the rest of the grounds. He didn’t stop his headlong rush until he was deep in trees. Jason collapsed onto his hands and knees, chest heaving. He was ok, he was fine, he could breathe, breathe dammit. He sucked in a breath but instead of helping, the musty smell of rotting leaves and dirt sent him rocketing back up, heartbeat thundering like a herd of wild horses. His back hit a tree and he whirled around, slamming his fist into it once, twice, three times. The pain cut through the panic and cleared the blurriness from his vision. He hit the tree once more for good measure and stumbled onward, his bleeding hand dangling by his side.

He had no idea how long he had been staggering along before the trees started thinning and he emerged at the peak of a small hill, but the stinging in his hand had turned to a dull throb and his head was a bit clearer. Jason flopped down, clutching at the grass, noticing with detached interest as a bead of red rolled down a green blade. He was on top of the dirt, he was ok. Bloody fingers fumbled in his pocket, pulling out the burner phone. He tapped the only contact and held his breath. His heart stuttered in time to the ringing. A robotic voice announced that a voicemail box was not set up yet and he barely kept himself from flinging the phone into the darkness. He tried to steady his breathing but images of Talia filled his mind. Laying on the floor, coated in blood, burns criss-crossing her arms and face, a dark chuckle from the shadows behind her, the glint of metal- No, no. The teenager ran his hands over his face, fisting them in his hair and pulling until the pain made the green recede a little. Why was he like this? Talia had been in the Pit and she wasn’t like him. Because you’re weak, a voice he knew well said. You’ll always be weak. Unless you prove your strength. Kill the Bat, go find Talia. Kill everyone in your way.

Jason pressed the heels of his hands into his eyelids. “I am not going to listen to the Pit.” Even if that was exactly what he wanted to do. He couldn’t kill Bruce, Damian would freak.

Damian.

Jason’s hands fell away from his face as he remembered what he had said to the boy. “Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck fuck.” He pulled at his hair again. Had he actually...oh God, Damian must hate him. Even if he saved Talia, she would hate him for saying that. She wouldn’t want anything to do with him. Jason curled over, hyperventilating. He was so afraid of losing her, but now he was going to lose everything. And it was his fault.

It was a few hours before Jason started making his way back to the Manor, when the sky started turning from midnight black to a softer grey. Jason watched, unblinking, as the stars -- visible this far outside of Gotham -- slowly vanished one by one. The back of his clothes were soaked with dew and the chill breeze made goosebumps erupt over his whole body. Longing tightened his chest as he remembered soft sand and cool nights surrounded by trillions of stars, the heat of the desert slowly draining away under the moon’s icy face, soft voices and laughter ringing until the stars themselves seemed to dance with the sound.

He shook his head, dismissing the memory like a horse shaking off a fly. It would do no good to concentrate on that now. Talia may hate him, but he would still save her. Damian deserved to have his mother, even if Jason didn’t.

Jason let hot tears run down his face without dashing them away. Just this once, where no one could see, he would allow himself to be weak. When he finally made it out of the trees, the manor looming dark and menacing above him, he rubbed the tears away; his eyes grew hard, his face smoothed out. There was work to be done.

Chapter Text

Mara sat in the hallway outside their bedroom door. She had stopped sharpening her knives, now focusing on restringing her nunchaku. The weapon didn’t really need it, but it gave her something to do with her hands. Her fingers stilled as an especially loud thud came through the door. The girl pointedly ignored the angry banging from inside and stood up, spinning the nunchaku around her body. The new cord worked perfectly and she stowed the weapon in her duffle bag, pulling out her katana. She studied the blade, running one finger along the side. She had just given it a full work-over about a week ago and the edge was still whisper sharp.

“Mara,” a rough voice said. She whirled around, sword raised immediately to a defensive position. The Batman stood behind her, just out of her blade’s reach. She allowed herself to relax a little but remained on guard. The man had not harmed them yet, but what Jason had said stuck in her mind. Maybe the reason Damian thought they were staying was due to the Batman’s manipulation. She narrowed her eyes at the man.

“I am not going to hurt you,” he said.

She had stopped believing those words when she was three. “What do you want?” she asked, her voice on the edge of curt. Despite Jason’s dislike and her own suspicions of the man, he had still given them sanctuary in his halls; it would not be wise to antagonize him. Especially with Jason being compromised.

The Batman shifted slightly, as if he was going to come closer, but stopped when her sword twitched a warning. “I was looking for Damian.”

“He does not wish to see anyone.”

“He told you that?”

“Yes.”

Damian had done nothing of the sort, but she knew that he would rather cut off his own hand than appear weak in front of his father. Something must have given her away, though, because the Batman smiled encouragingly -- “never trust a smile, ibnatu 'lmajhhul” -- and said, “I’m not going to hurt him, either. I just want to talk about what happened.”

Mara narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

“Some of the things Jason said downstairs were...need to be addressed,” he amended, perhaps sensing her hackles rising. “I don’t want him being misled-”

“Jason would not lie to us,” she snapped, her shoulders tightening.

“I’m not saying he would,” the man said, raising his hands in surrender. “But it is possible that Jason misunderstood the situation. I want to make sure Damian knows the facts.” He hesitated for a moment. “He is also my son, even though I do not know him very well, and Jason said several hurtful things. I would like to make sure he is alright.”

Mara snorted. “Jason speaks the truth. abn eamana <my cousin> is deluding himself and it must come to an end. If we were back at the League he would have been punished for his weakness already. You are doing him no favors by coddling him.” She ignored the fact that her protecting Damian’s privacy could and would have been seen as ‘coddling’.

The Batman’s face fell and he spoke carefully, measuring his words. “Mara...Damian is a child. So are you. It’s alright for him to want me and his mother to get together again. Natural, in fact. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but it is not wrong for him to hope.”

“‘To hope for that which has no ties to reality is the embodiment of foolishness’,” she quoted.

“Shīfù Sikong,” he said quietly.

“You know him?” She tried to keep the surprise out of her voice.

“Yes, I trained with him.” The Batman cocked his head to one side. “Have you?”

“Yes.”

“He is a hard teacher.” His eyes bored into hers and she got a strange feeling in her stomach.

“I learned much from him.”

The Batman hummed. He lifted his head, his eyes focusing on something behind her, and Mara turned around to see Damian standing in the doorway, the door held tight to his body to prevent anyone from seeing in. His hair had been mussed and then hastily smoothed back down and his eyes were more bloodshot than normal, but someone who didn’t know him well might not notice.

“Father,” the boy said. His voice was calm but tight.

“Damian. I hoped to speak with you?”

The boy nodded but didn’t move to open the door. Mara cast a glance at the Batman, wondering why he was not upset that his request -- order, always an order -- was not being immediately obeyed.

“Would you like to talk in the library? We could go to my study or somewhere else if you would prefer.”

Damian nodded again and stepped out into the hallway, carefully closing the door behind him. Mara hoped the bed wasn’t too badly damaged to sleep in.

***

Bruce waited until they were safely ensconced in the library, the crackling fire setting shadows dancing across bookshelves and furniture, to really study his son. The flitting shadows made it easy to overlook the small signs of distress on Damian’s face, but Bruce did not miss them. It was obvious the boy had been, if not crying, very close to doing so and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that Damian didn’t want him to know that.

Bruce looked at his son’s stiff face and tense shoulders and cursed Talia for doing this to their child. No eight year old should be capable of hiding his emotions, turning them on and off like a lightswitch. He kept his body language calm and his face neutral. At this point, any display of emotion -- positive or negative -- would probably spook the boy. Bruce was reminded abruptly of the last time he was in this position, with a skittish boy waiting to run if he so much as twitched wrong, and his heart gave a pang. Focus on Damian, he thought. Don’t think of Jason as your Jason for this discussion. Your son is hurting, you can’t get caught up in your own issues.

He cleared his throat. He could do this. “Some hurtful things were said downstairs. I wanted to make sure-”

“You wish to know if I have killed.”

Bruce blinked. He would be lying if he said the thought hadn’t occurred to him, but he had dismissed the question even before Dick had turned to him and snarled, “I swear to God if the first thing out of your mouth is ‘Have you really crossed the line’-”. That was a discussion for another time. “No actually,” he said, keeping his tone gentle but not patronizing. Damian looked surprised and Bruce had to fight to keep his face from falling. Had he messed up so badly in the short time they had known each other that Damian believed that was all he cared about? Or was it a result of the League? What Jason had said? He firmly filed the thoughts for later.

“I wanted to let you know that, regardless of my feelings for her, I would not leave your mother in danger if I was capable of helping.” Damian squinted at him and, alright, the skepticism was warranted. He hadn’t cared what Talia got up to before -- those times he checked up on her were to make sure she wasn’t doing anything catastrophic, don’t be ridiculous Richard --, but now that their son was here…. “I would protect her for you, Damian,” he added, hoping that didn’t cross into ‘too emotional’ and have Damian run away, literally or figuratively. As much as he didn’t like it, Talia obviously meant a great deal to Damian. He thought the woman didn’t deserve it and he still hated her for keeping his sons from him but he wasn’t going to sit back and let her get killed.

Damian looked uncomfortable at his admission but he wasn’t running away so Bruce continued. “Jason said...several things I wish he hadn’t.” He sighed, trying to get his thoughts together. He had to get this right. “I can never condone killing.” Damian tensed up immediately and Bruce hurried to finish, “However, Damian, you are eight years old. You are not responsible for the things you were-” he barely managed to stop the word ‘brainwashed’, knowing it wouldn’t go over well, “-taught from a young age.”

Damian stared at him. “You hate my mother.”

Yes, he thought, but he wouldn’t say that out loud. Not to her son. Bruce pursed his lips. “We...are not friends.” He looked the boy in the eye. “I am very unhappy that she kept you and Jason from me.”

“I was not worthy to meet you yet,” Damian replied. “I still am not, but circumstances forced my mother’s hand.”

“How did she test worthiness?” Bruce asked, trying to keep his voice calm and under control.

“I had to best her in a duel,” the boy said casually.

Bruce’s hands tightened into fists on his lap but he made them relax. He had fought Talia. He knew how ruthless she could be in battle. “I see. Damian, you do not need to do anything to become ‘worthy’ of being around me. You are my son. That’s enough.”

Damian stared at him, obviously confused. “What of Jason?” he finally asked.

Bruce tilted his head, furrowing his brow at the non-sequitur. “What about him?”

Damian wasn’t looking at him, gaze trained firmly on his socked feet. “Would you extend the same courtesy to him?”

“Yes,” Bruce said, not giving himself time to second-guess it. “As long as you both promise not to kill again.”

Damian frowned. “I do not see why-”

“That is my one rule, Damian,” Bruce interrupted, trying to sound gentle while making it clear the rule was nonnegotiable. “And that you don’t try to hurt anyone here.”

There was a long silence. “And if I refuse?”

Bruce blinked, nonplussed. What would he do if Damian refused to cooperate, killed someone or tried to hurt a member of the family -- he was well aware of the way all three assassins looked at Tim, he wasn’t blind. He couldn't send him away, it would be terrible for Damian and...Bruce knew he wouldn’t be able to stand it, knowing his son existed but never seeing him.

“Well it would certainly make your stay more difficult,” he said finally, “but I would not throw you out.”

Damian didn’t seem to know what to think of this, but he nodded slowly after a few moments. Bruce was already feeling tense from trying to make sure he said what he meant but he knew there was another thing he had to address.

“Damian, from everything I’ve seen Jason...loves you. A great deal. I do not believe he truly meant what he said. Even if you chose to stay with me -- which I hope you will -- I am sure he will not abandon you. And even if you chose to go with Talia --” which will NOT happen, he added silently “-- you will be welcome here anytime.”

Bruce was slightly alarmed by the way Damian’s eyes were watering a little, though the boy hid it too well for a child. When he spoke, his voice held just the barest hint of a waver. “Thank you Father.”

“Of course.” Bruce wanted to comfort his son but he couldn’t bring himself to lie to the boy, say he was sure his mother was safe. Knowing Damian he probably wouldn't believe it anyway. Bruce stood and Damian followed suit. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, heart sinking at the automatic stiffness. “Tomorrow we will try and find your mother. Jason will likely know something that can be of use and hopefully by that time he will have calmed down.”

Damian nodded silently and said, “May I be excused, Father?”

“Of course.” Damian gave a stiff little nod, almost an aborted bow, and walked away. “Sleep well,” Bruce called after him quietly. Damian’s steps faltered for a heartbeat and then continued on. Bruce sank back down onto the couch, putting one hand over his eyes tiredly. Well, at least he hadn’t destroyed his relationship with another son. He had a pounding headache now though.

He wasn’t sure how long he had been lying there before Dick poked his head in the room. Bruce glanced at his eldest tiredly. Dick leaned against the doorframe for a moment before moving over to the back of the couch.

“Didn’t go well?”

“It actually went rather well,” Bruce said, sitting up. “He doesn’t seem to hate me at least.”

“And you didn’t bring up the….” The young man’s raised eyebrow finished the sentence.

“He did actually, and before you ask, yes I had tact.”

Dick snorted in amusement and vaulted over the couch to sit beside him. “Somehow I doubt that.”

“Oh no, it’s the truth. I told him I wouldn’t blame him for what he had been taught and that I’d never kick him out, the whole shebang,” Bruce said, rubbing at his temples.

Dick hummed thoughtfully. “Well then...good job.”

“Thank you.”

“What are you planning on doing with Jason?”

“I-” Bruce sighed, “I really don’t know. I don’t...think he meant what he said. But he did say it. But it’s not like I can…. I’m not his dad. Not anymore.”

Dick turned slightly to look at him. “You don’t really think that, do you?”

“What else am I supposed to think? He wants nothing to do with me.”

“Bruce, that’s-” Dick ran his hands over his face and made a frustrated noise. “When I left, I said I hated you. Hell, I did hate you.” Bruce’s hands tightened at the memory. “But, B, here’s the thing. I wanted you to follow me.”

Bruce’s head shot up and he met Dick’s eyes bewilderedly. Confusion and frustration welled up in him, compounding the headache, but he didn’t let the automatic anger out. “But you told me to stay away. You wanted to make something of yourself, by yourself. I thought you would be happy if I let you.”

Dick smiled slightly. “I know. And if you did show up I would have been furious.”

“Then what-” Bruce made a helpless gesture with his hands.

“I wanted to know you still cared,” Dick said, shrugging.  “It wasn’t logical, it was the exact opposite of what I was saying, I’m not sure I even realized it at the time. I’m not upset about it, Bruce. Not anymore at least. If I didn’t even realize what I wanted, I can’t expect you to.”

Bruce sighed, “So I need to find a way to show Jason I’m...here for him? He can’t stand being in the same room as me!”

“I think you’ve been doing an okay job so far,” Dick said, resting his head on the back of the couch. “Just treat him normally. I think he’ll appreciate it. Find something he likes and find a subtle way to do something with it.”

Bruce hummed thoughtfully. Then his frowned. “But what am I supposed to do about what Jason said to Damian?”

“I’d leave it alone, honestly. I think that was mostly the,” Dick hesitated, grimacing, “Lazarus Pit. You saw his eyes right?” Bruce had been more occupied with Damian’s reaction and raised a questioning eyebrow. “They were more green than normal. At least, I think so. It’s hard to tell without pictures but….” There was a moment of silence as both men considered the information. “Anway, I’m sure when Jason calms down he’ll apologize on his own,” Dick said. “You getting involved would not be welcome, trust me.”

Bruce hesitated. Getting involved was something he had been trying to do more. But Dick was undeniably better at these things than him. “I’ll trust your judgment,” he decided, nodding.

Dick turned his head slightly to smile at him. “Thanks, B. We notice you making an effort, ya know. It means a lot.”

Bruce smiled a little back, relieved. Sometimes it felt like no matter what he did, he just made things worse. “Thanks, chum.”

Chapter Text

Jason sat at the table in the early morning light, staring at the rapidly-cooling mug of coffee in his hands. By the time he made it back to the manor and eased his way through the kitchen door, it had been just before five o’clock and everyone was already back from patrol and safely away from him. His brain felt like it had been scoured in the last few hours, the tough calluses torn away, and he honestly didn’t know how he would react if anyone said or did anything. Especially the Replacement. Jason’s hands tightened around his mug, knuckles creaking, but he forced himself to take some deep breaths and relax his grip. After his outburst last night, Bruce was probably -- scratch that, definitely -- trying to come up with a plan to get rid of him, better not give him any more reasons. Hell, Damian might not fight it anymore. God knew he deserved it. What had he been thinking?! Telling his little brother to choose….

Jason rubbed his face tiredly. He had been trying not to think about it. He was vulnerable, as much as he hated to admit it. And the Pit loved vulnerable. If Talia was here, she could tell him what to do, how to quiet the screaming that rang through his ears, but she wasn’t. That was the problem! Dead, dying, hot blood soaking into the sand, down a drain, dissolving into water. Gone, gone, never coming back, just like everyone else. Jason was abruptly ripped out of his thoughts by the sound of shattering ceramic. He hissed quietly, examining the spots of blood on his palms. At least the coffee had cooled down enough that it hadn’t scalded him. The teenager stood with a sigh and grabbed a dish towel to drop on the mess so it wouldn’t spread while he tended to his hands. There was a first aid kit under the sink because you never know when you’re going to need sutures in this house, and he picked out the shards of the mug with tweezers. There was a fleeting moment where he wondered why he bothered but he dismissed the thought with a shake of his head. He needed to be in peak condition if -- when -- he rescued Talia.

Once the coffee and mug were cleaned up and his hands cleaned -- the cuts were small enough that he just slapped on a few bandaids -- Jason stood looking around the kitchen with his hands on his hips. Ok, so sitting and thinking was not helping, he didn’t want to go down to the Cave or up to their room or into the library or...basically anywhere in this house, so what could he do? His stomach growled and Jason brightened. Cooking was something that usually soothed him and he hadn’t had a chance to do it by himself in a while. He had helped Alfred a little in the last few days, but there was still a part of him that shied away, whispered that he was going to snap and hurt the only person from his first life that truly cared about him. As a result he was usually a bit tense around the man, though definitely more relaxed than he was around anyone else. And, hey, maybe waking up to his favorite breakfast would make Damian more inclined to forgive him.

Jason opened the pantry, studying the dark shelves. The day after Mara had commented that the food was -- gasp -- plain, Alfred had gone out for his normal shopping trip and had come home with loads of different spices and ingredients for the foods Damian and Mara had grown up on. Jason had given him a list. As a result, they had everything he needed. Jason cracked his knuckles, flipped on the light switch, and got started.

***

Damian stared out the window, watching the sun rising over the trees behind Wayne Manor. His eyes were gritty with lack of sleep and his shoulders slumped with exhaustion. It had been a few weeks since he had to go extended periods without sleep and the stress of the situation was not helping anything. Damian sighed and rubbed at his eyes with one hand. No matter how tired he was, he couldn't sleep. Too many thoughts were swirling around his head, first and foremost Jason’s voice telling him he had to choose. It seemed like an easy decision, pick the people he knew, his mother and Jason, the ones who raised him. But whenever he thought of abandoning his father, years of teaching rebelled. This was his father, The Batman! Damian had been preparing to meet him his entire life. And that wasn’t even taking into account the fact that his father was...nice. It was an absurd thought, Batman being nice. But it was true. He didn’t look down on Damian for his youth and he even put aside his dislike of lethal force for a time to talk with him.

Damian didn’t know what to think about that. In the League it would be weakness, he thought his mother would likely not mind, seeing how she was kind herself outside of Grandfather’s eyes, and Jason would probably approve, the action if not the person doing it. On top of all of the other thoughts was the gnawing worry about his mother. The only reason that wasn’t foremost in his thoughts was because Damian was used to her being gone for long stretches of time on missions. She always came back and if she was badly injured the Pit was used. Intellectually, Damian knew that they no longer had access to the Pit and his mother was in much greater danger now that Grandfather was hunting her, but the conditioning of a lifetime was not easy to shed.

Damian sighed and rested his forehead against the glass, watching his breath fog up the window. There was a creak behind him and he turned quickly. Mara was standing by the bed, watching him. Her hair was rumpled, as were her sleeping clothes, but her eyes were sharp and piercing.
“Damian,” she greeted quietly.

“Mara,” he replied.

They stared at each other in silence for a few moments.

“The Batman did not harm you?” she finally asked.

“Of course not!” Damian snapped, glaring at her. The girl raised her hands in surrender.

Hasananaan, aman 'afdal min asif <Okay, better safe than sorry>.”

Damian turned away in a huff, folding his arms tightly across his chest.

Mara waited for a minute before saying, “yjb 'an nadhhab alqitar <shall we go train>?”

“...bidun Jason <without Jason>?

'Akid <sure>,” she said easily. “Yumkinuna alqital <we can spar>.”

Damian studied her. “Hasananaan <Okay>,” he said quietly.

The two of them crept out of the room, feet stepping lightly on the old boards. They had quickly learned that the rest of the people in the manor did not wake up early and were in horrible moods if they were woken, especially if they didn’t have anything pressing to attend to.

Both children came to an abrupt halt at the top of the stairs, exchanging wide-eyed looks.

hal rayihat dhlk <Do you smell that>?” Mara whispered.

Na’am <yes>.”

They made their way down the stairs, following their noses to the kitchen and peering around the doorframe. Jason turned and smiled nervously at them, the sun coming through the windows shining on the big white bowl he held. Damian quickly looked away, heart aching, Jason’s words from last night echoing in his ears. He studied the tile floor, then the table which was littered with small dishes.

“Damian?” Jason asked. Damian ignored him, stepping into the room and walking over to the table. He could hear Jason’s footsteps following him and Damian knew it was on purpose; Jason normally walked completely silently despite his size. He wasn’t sure why though. Was Jason trying to avoid startling him? Was he trying to pressure Damian into saying something? He stared at the food to avoid looking up, subtly biting the inside of his lip as he noticed the table was covered with his favorite dishes.

“I made fattet hommus,” Jason offered awkwardly. “And some chicken kofta. Alfred couldn’t find any proper labneh but I rustled up some Greek yogurt….” He faltered at Damian’s continued silence. There was a moment of silence before he sighed heavily. “Dami….” Damian’s eyes widened at the emotion in the single word. He spun around to find Jason looking down at him, his eyes shiny. “I’m so sorry,” the teenager said, voice barely above a whisper. He took in a raggedy breath. “I never should have said any of that stuff about you having to choose and especially not the stuff about Bruce never trusting you. I didn’t even mean it.” Damian watched, slightly horrified, as Jason drew one sleeve over his eyes. “I just mess everything up. And I made your favorite breakfast”, Jason made a sound almost like a laugh, “as if that could make it better, after I just told you -- right after you found out your mom was missing, too -- that I’d basically abandon you if you chose to stay with your dad.” Jason put the bowl in his arms down with a thunk and fisted his hands on the table, staring down at the floor, his whole body tense. “I’m a horrible brother and I wouldn’t be surprised if you chose to stay as far away from me as possible after last night.”

There was a moment of absolute silence in the kitchen. Damian looked over at Mara, feeling a bit panicky. Comforting people was not his strong suit and the bitterness from what Jason said was still sitting in his chest, making it even harder. Her eyes were wide and it was obvious she wanted to be as far away from this as possible. No help there. Damian looked back at Jason, who hadn’t moved. He bit his lip. Forgiving was...not something al Ghuls did. But it was something that Jason did. Occasionally. For Mother and Damian and Mara. al Ghuls did believe that family came first, so it would likely not be considered weakness if he forgave his brother. And besides, what his mother allowed and what she did not had been changing, ever so slightly, since they left the League.

Jason’s shoulders had begun to shake slightly and Damian felt his anger crumble. A few swift steps had him plowing into his older brother. Jason’s arms wrapped around him and Damian could feel the older boy’s trembling. Damian’s arms couldn’t reach all the way around Jason’s waist, but he still held on a tight as possible.

“You are an imbecile,” his said, his voice muffled by Jason’s shirt.

Jason laughed wetly. “Yeah, I know.”

Damian pressed his forehead harder into Jason’s stomach, hiding the trembling of his lip. The hurt had not disappeared, but the relief that his brother wasn’t really going to make him choose washed over him. He took a deep breath, happy for a moment, but the worry about his mother followed close on its heels.

“Is Mother alright?” he asked, words barely audible.

He could feel Jason sigh. One big hand rested on his head. “I...I don’t know, Dami. But I’m going to find her.”

Damian closed his eyes, a single tear disappearing into Jason’s shirt before he composed himself. He pulled away, one hand discreetly rubbing his cheek. Jason cleared his throat loudly as he stepped back. “Right, well, I don’t know about you but I’m starving.”

Damian nodded, still a bit shaky, but deciding for the moment to not dwell on his mother. Jason was the best. If he said he would find Mother, he would. The condition in which he would find her was another matter entirely but Damian squished the thought. Not now. Breakfast now. He pulled out a chair and sat down, looking over the table and feeling excitement rise in his chest.

“Hey Mara,” Jason’s quiet voice said from behind him. Damian turned slightly in his chair to look back. Jason had moved over to Mara, who was looking up at him, brow wrinkled.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry about last night.”

“Why? You did not do anything to me.”

“I was yelling and ran out during a very stressful time. That wasn’t ok. I’m sorry.”

Mara shifted uncomfortably. “'ana 'asamihukum <I forgive you>,” she mumbled, looking down at her feet.

shukraan lakum <Thank you>,” Jason said, a small smile appearing on his face. She smiled back tentatively and they joined Damian at the table.

“So!” Jason said, obviously trying to cheer everyone up. “Who wants the hommus? Mara, I got some olives for you, of course. Damian, don’t take all the kofka!”

Chapter Text

Jason was stretched out on the couch, reading a book pulled randomly off one of the bookshelves helpfully scattered around the manor. He shifted a little and Damian glared from an armchair.

“Hold still,” the boy said, pencil moving quickly across the page -- Jason could see the tip bobbing up and down. He glanced over, smirking a little at the exasperated look the movement earned him from over the top of a sketchpad.

“I thought you could draw animals. They don’t sit still.”

Damian huffed. “Just because I am able does not mean I wish to when given the choice. And, despite strong evidence to the contrary, you are not actually an animal.”

Jason snorted but stopped moving. Damian’s skills were impressive and kept improving with time. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t looking forward to seeing the result of the boy’s efforts. “How’s the Sudoku coming, Mara?” he called.

The girl seated in the window seat glanced up. “The levels of difficulty are hardly accurate. ‘Hard’ would at most be considered moderate, and that is being generous. Even ‘Expert’ barely borders on challenging.”

Jason hid his grin in his book. “Good to know. Glad you’re having fun.” Mara sniffed but couldn’t hide the way the corner of her mouth tilted up.

The room remained in comfortable silence for a few minutes, broken only by the scratch of pencil on paper and the whisper of turning pages. If only Talia was there, Jason would almost have called it idyllic. One of the reasons for that ‘almost’ poked his head in the door. Everyone inside tensed subtly.

“Oh, uh, sorry to bother you guys,” Dick said, rubbing the back of his head.

“What do you want, Dickhead,” Jason asked, not moving from his position on the couch.

“Bruce wanted to talk. About Talia.”

Jason stared at the ceiling for a heartbeat longer, inhaling deeply. “Right.” He sat up, swinging his legs over and closing the book with a snap. He looked up and raised an eyebrow at the kids. “You guys ready?” Mara closed her puzzle book and Damian carefully laid his sketchpad and pencils on a side table. Jason nodded and stood up. “Let’s do it then.”

Bruce was waiting for them in the dining room. All the other ‘family members’ -- even thinking it made Jason’s stomach turn -- were sitting at the table, along with- “Babs?”

Jason kicked himself for speaking without thinking. Now every eye was on them, including Barbara’s. He just...he hadn’t seen her in person since he…. Since before.

“Jason,” she replied steadily. Her glasses did nothing to hide the sharpness of her eyes as they scanned over him. Jason swallowed. ‘You’ll never be Dick Grayson’ his memory sneered, and he felt his hands clench convulsively. But other memories came back too, sitting on a couch and pouring over homework together, laughing and playing around on patrol. Jason blinked out of his thoughts, realizing that he had been staring without blinking for at least a minute.

“It’s, uh, it’s good to see you again,” he said awkwardly, repressing the urge to scratch at the back of his neck. That had been another tell that he had been broken of -- his wrist twinged and he rubbed at it absentmindedly.

Barbara hummed, “Yes, you’ll be relieved to know that I left my laptop at home. Not much a threat right now.”

Jason winced. “...right. I’m, uh, I’m sorry about that.”

“Why?” the woman asked, and yeah she was still pissed. “You weren’t wrong, except about my security measures. Pretty good for a paraplegic, huh?”

No one moved, Jason could feel everyone looking at him. Probably forgot about what he had said to Babs, what with the Pit Attack and everything. Just another reason for them to kick him out. His arms twitched with the desire to grab his knife but he resisted. Making any violent gestures would not be good right now. There was a twisting in his gut that felt uncomfortably like guilt, something he had been feeling more often than he would like recently. He knew it had been a cheap shot, mentioning Babs’ legs. He knew . That’s why he’d said it! Deflect the attention from the kids to him, make people angry to make them sloppy; it was one of the first things Bruce had taught him and something that had come up innumerable times during his League training. Usually assassins were taught to be stealthy and quiet, even if they had been discovered, and Jason was perfectly capable of that. But it could also put his charges in danger so distract, distract, distract.

He didn’t move or say anything further. He had already apologized, the ball was in Barbara’s court now. He wasn’t about to grovel at her feet, guilt or no guilt.

After a minute or two more of staring at each other, Babs sighed and opened her arms. “C’mere.”

Jason hesitantly stepped forward, eyes automatically looking for weapons as he slowly bent over to give her a hug. It was awkward and uncomfortable but she pulled him close with surprisingly strong arms and Jason felt something shift and crack inside of him. He hadn’t been hugged by anyone other than the three al Ghouls in so long…and their slight touch-aversion didn’t help matters. He pushed the feeling down and to the side to examine later. Or maybe not.

“Missed you, Jase,” Babs whispered. Jason swallowed the lump in his throat and pulled out of the hug. He had never blamed Barbara for what happened. J... He had taken just as much from her as he had from him. Maybe more. At least Jason was healed now. And he had gained a family. Jason found his eyes straying to the wheelchair and his hands clenched so hard he almost drew blood.

Barbara reached forward and took his hand, unfolding his fingers. “Hey, I’m okay now.” Her voice was gentle and soothing and fucking hell Jason hated being treated like glass. No she wasn’t, she couldn’t be. How could she be okay? She was stuck in a wheelchair for fuck’s sake! She couldn’t walk or run or even wiggle her toes.

Jason took a deep breath, trying to calm down and ignore the furious voices telling him to go kill Joker right this minute. He didn’t know if it was the Pit or not and that scared him a little. Even though he was fully on board with the idea of putting that piece of shit in the ground he couldn’t do it now, not with Talia missing and the kids under Bruce’s thumb. He finally ripped his eyes away from the chair and looked at the other occupants of the room.

“Well? You wanted to talk about Talia?” he asked roughly.

Bruce, thankfully, ignored the events of the last few minutes and just nodded gravely. “We have to discuss strategies for finding her.”

“And why aren’t we doing that in the Cave?” Jason asked, looking around the table. The blonde -- Stephanie -- waved at him and he narrowed his eyes slightly at her. He looked back at Bruce. “No Bat-related things upstairs, that’s the rule. Unless that’s changed while I’ve been dead.”

Bruce blinked slowly and Jason liked to think it was hiding a flinch. “I thought it might be better if this discussion took place somewhere more...relaxed.”

Less triggering, his mind supplied.

They think you’re weak, that you can’t handle it, the Pit muttered. A little bit of anger rose in his chest at the thought. He wasn’t sure if he could handle it, himself, but how dare they doubt him! Yes, he was aware of the lack of logic. No, it did not particularly matter to him right then.

Jason kept his face carefully blank. “I see.” He sat down in one of the three empty chairs, pleased to see that they were all grouped together. He would have thrown whoever was sitting beside him out of their chair to make room for Damian and Mara, but this way was preferable. Even though the thought of throwing the Replacement across the room made a little frisson of excitement go through his chest.

“Do you have any idea where her last location was?” Bruce asked. Jason shook his head.

“Talia’s phone is so well encrypted I doubt even Barbie could get a fix.” That earned him a look from the hacker, whether due to the nickname or the slight on her skills Jason didn’t know.

Bruce frowned slightly at the information. “And she didn’t tell you?”

Jason glared at the man. “Of course not, she’s not a rookie or stupid.”

The man raised his hands up in a gesture of surrender, a sight that surprised Jason so much he didn’t say the other thoughts on the tip of his tongue. “Alright, I was just checking. Do you have means to contact any of her agents?”

Jason’s hand went to his pocket automatically. His eyes widened. How could he have been so stupid! “Yeah,” he said. “I do actually.”

“Have you spoken to any of them yet?”

“No.”

“Wait, wouldn’t they call as soon as Talia dropped out of contact?” Stephanie asked from across the table.

Damian sniffed. “Of course not. We have protocol for this situation. They would wait twenty-four hours and then make contact.” The look he gave the girl clearly showed what he thought of her mental abilities.

“Well sorry ,” she muttered, glaring at the boy.

“So, not until tonight,” Dick said.

“Yeah.”

“Should we wait for them?”

Jason bit the inside of his cheek. “No. I’ll call them now.” He stood up, pacing back and forth as the phone rang. It clicked as someone answered and Jason held his breath for a moment.

Meister <Master>?”

“Mila,” Jason greeted, recognizing the voice. Talia had drilled into him the importance of knowing his staff inside and out. Not only did it help breed loyalty, but it made it very difficult for someone to infiltrate without him noticing. “Talia hat nicht gestern angerufen. Hast du von ihr gehört <Talia did not call yesterday. Have you heard from her>?”

Nein, Meister <No, Master>.”

Wann hat sie dich zuletzt kontaktiert <When did she last contact you>?” Jason asked impatiently, trying to ignore the people staring at him.

Donnerstag <Thursday>,” Mila replied, “gegen drei Uhr <around three o'clock>.”

Hast du eine Spur von ihr <Do you have a trace on her>?”

Nicht auf gnädige Frau Talia <Not on Madam Talia>.” There was the sound of rustling pages. “Das Leuchtfeuer auf Azadeh hat aufgehört zu senden. Wir werden uns umgehend mit Ihnen in Verbindung setzen, wenn sie wieder online ist <The beacon on Azadeh has stopped transmitting. We will contact you immediately if it comes online again>.”

sehen, dass Sie es tun <See that you do>,” Jason said tiredly, rubbing at his temple. He hung up with a sigh, looking back at the table. “They haven’t heard from her and she doesn’t have a tracker. Her second does but it’s stopped transmitting.”

“So we’ve got nothing to go on,” Stephanie said. “That’s just great.”

“Not quite nothing,” Barbara said. “I’ve been tracking the movements of the League, the sectors we know about, at least, and there’s been some movement.”

“Where?”

The woman reached into a bag hanging on the back of her chair and pulled out a tablet. She tapped away at it for a minute before handing it over to him. He squinted at the world map.  Clusters of black dots showed where assassins were on the move and when he zoomed in he could see the direction. “They’re not headed towards Nanda Parbat,” he mused.

“Did you expect them to?” Dick asked.

Jason glanced up from the tablet, cold green eyes pinning Dick like a beetle. “If Ra’s was going to have a high-level execution, that’s where he would have it.”

The young man’s normally tan skin paled. “Wait, you think he’s going to….”

“Talia betrayed him,” Jason said simply, handing the tablet back to Babs. “Ra’s doesn’t forgive.”

“Let’s think best-case scenario, though,” the Replacement said. Jason stared at him for a long moment, not bothering to hide his disgust. It showed how much the boy knew, if he thought best-case was feasible option.

“It’s always the worst-case scenario, Replacement. You either learn that or you get dead.” He might have said that with a little too much venom, seeing how Dick automatically moved to block the kid from him and Bruce’s hand visibly twitched. Jason felt his lip curl in a sneer. He turned back to Barbara, ignoring the men. “Even if he doesn’t kill her right away he’ll punish her. Badly. Torture, maybe. I’d wager he’d try even harder to get his hands on the rest of us. Nothing would break Talia more than seeing Damian tortured and executed in front of her.”

Bruce cleared his throat loudly and Babs’ eyes twitched past Jason to where the man was sitting. She looked back at Jason. “Should we really be having this conversation with the children here?”

“They can handle it. They need to know what we’re up against,” Jason replied. He looked at the kids, who were pale but determined. “‘Sides, if Ra’s does come, he’ll get a sword to the throat before he can even blink. Right, guys?” They looked hesitant at the thought. Damian grimaced but slowly nodded. Mara looked pained. Jason raised an eyebrow. “Mara? You can’t hesitate, if it comes to it.”

“R-right. Of course, Mudarris,” she said quickly.

Jason’s forehead wrinkled slightly at the title but he let it go. “The point is, they’re not headed there. Which either means they just haven’t gotten to heading back yet, or Talia hasn’t been captured but they’re closing in.” He rubbed his chin. “If they were under radio silence she wouldn’t break it. In that case it might be premature to chase after her. We might even give her away. If not, she could be imprisoned or dead as we speak.”

“So pretty shitty options all around,” Stephanie supplied. The Replacement hissed a warning at her but Jason’s lip actually twitched up a little. He wasn’t used to other people supplying commentary like that. Usually that was his thing.

“Right,” he agreed. “Personally I’d rather risk capture with her than being too late. Take it from someone who knows what it’s like to wait for someone.” Bruce actually made a little noise at that. Jason raised a sardonic eyebrow at the man. “Yes, Bruce?”

His teeth ground so loud Jason could actually hear it -- and by their winces so could everyone else -- but Bruce only said, “Nothing,” in a slightly strangled voice so Jason turned back to the matter at hand. As much fun as torturing Bruce was, he had more important things to focus on.

“I’m going to start getting supplies ready for the call,” Jason said, settling into the role of commanding officer he had grown accustomed to occupying. “Damian, Mara, you’re going to have to stay here.” He held up a hand to cut off their loud complaints. “It’s too dangerous. You’ll be safer here.” He had been agonizing over that all morning and a good deal of last night, Bruce’s words running around his head like those demented birds that show up after a cartoon character hits their head. Did he want to leave his kids here? No fucking way. Was it the best option out of a lot of shitty options? Yes. He was practical and well-trained enough to ignore his mixed feelings on the matter. Ignoring Damian and Mara -- who were still trying to argue with him --, he looked at Barbara. “Babs, keep tracking their movements, let me know if anything else changes. Please,” he added after she raised one unimpressed eyebrow.

“How can we help, Little Wing?” Dick asked.

Jason threw him a glare for the nickname. “You can stay out of the way and keep an eye on the kids.”

“You can’t go in alone,” Bruce growled.

“I think you’ll find that I can.”

They stared at each other for a long few seconds. The atmosphere -- which had been quickly growing tense -- was broken by Alfred coming in the room. “I do hope that you weren’t planning on running off without even having lunch, Master Jason,” the old man said calmly.

Jason wavered for a minute before sitting down with a sigh. “‘Course not, Alfie.”

“Excellent. Master Timothy, I suggest you sit back down. Coffee is not a breakfast substitute, no matter how much you want to it be.” The Replacement froze like a deer in the headlights.

“I had a granola bar,” he offered weakly.

Alfred raised one eyebrow and the boy slowly lowered himself back into his chair. Stephanie snorted and elbowed him in the ribs. “I can’t believe you’d ever pass up Alfred’s food.” The Replacement muttered something about an open case.

“Tim, it’s Saturday,” Bruce said, surprising pretty much everyone. “It can wait until this evening.” The Replacement gaped at Bruce for a minute. Bruce completely ignored him, thanking Alfred when the man put a plate in front of him and picking up his knife and fork. “Besides,” he finally said, “I believe you have a paper to finish?”

The Replacement scowled furiously at the table, slumping back in his chair. “High school is stupid,” he grumbled.

“For once we are in agreement, Drake,” Damian said. Jason turned in his seat, staring at his little brother. Everyone else seemed just as surprised, especially the Replacement, whose eyes almost bulged out of his head.

“We are?”

“Yes.” Damian sniffed and cut his chicken pot pie. “Traditional schooling is pointless, particularly the American system.”

“No,” Jason said, pointing at him. “No, school is important.” Good grief, why did Damian have to decide to talk to the Replacement now. And agree with him about this of all things! Was it because he was trying to make nice with Bruce still? He directed his finger at the Replacement, who shrank back slightly. “Stop putting ideas in his head!”

Damian rolled his eyes. “Please, Jason, it is not as if I require or attend traditional schooling. My tutors are more than adequate. You know I could have two Master’s degrees by now.”

Jason sighed, putting his head in his hands. “I know, Damian.”

Damian continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “And it is not as if I will need a traditional education to run the Lea-” he faltered and fell silent. Jason eyed him worriedly. “-to take up my Father’s mantle,” the boy amended. Jason closed his eyes in frustration. Not any better, kid.

“We’ve discussed this already, Damian,” Bruce said. Jason’s head turned so fast he got whiplash. They had? When?!

Damian frowned, looking uncertain. “You said you would not be discarding the others due to my presence but surely you must realize that I am more fit, as your true heir, to be your successor.”

“Damian,” Jason muttered. The boy turned to look at him. “You know how I said I didn’t mean what I said last night?”

“Yes?” Damian said uneasily.

“I did mean the bit about you not going out on the streets.”

Damian stared at him, eyes blown wide. “But...Akhi….”

Jason shook his head, cutting him off. “I mean it. I’m not going to let you get killed.” He paused for a second before putting a final nail in his argument. “Like I did.” Damian’s mouth opened and closed silently for a second but Jason’s attention was pulled away by a buzzing in his pocket.

“Hello?”

“Jason,” a voice gasped through the phone.

“Azadeh?!” Jason demanded, standing up so quickly his chair fell over with a crash.

Talia’s second coughed, a wet, rattling noise that promised liquid -- probably blood -- in her lungs. “They’ve taken her. I failed.”

“Azadeh, where are you? Turn on your tracker!” The only response he got was labored breathing. “Azadeh? Azadeh!”

Chapter Text

Jason keyed in the 17-digit code for the alarm and slipped his key in the lock. The door slid silently open and lights clicked on, illuminating the racks of weapons and supplies that filled the warehouse. Jason stared inside for a second, hand still resting on the wall. Fuck but Gotham was getting to him. He hadn’t been afr- reluctant to go inside a warehouse since Stipanov had gotten through with him. He gritted his teeth and forced his way through the…hesitation.

“Get what you need,” he said, walking in. Ten assassins -- wearing street clothes, obviously, he wasn’t an idiot and neither were they -- moved past him, disappearing into the racks. Jason walked to his section -- Talia always organized these caches the same --, picking out the equipment he’d need on the mission. A silver case caught his eye and he hesitated, running his hands over the metal, fingers poised over the lock.

Jason shook his head abruptly, pushing the case back on the shelf and moving away. He was examining his dual katanas, the ones given to him when he left the All Caste, the ones with the markings that matched the tattoos on his back, when a voice spoke up behind him.

“Have you located Azadeh yet?”

“Yep,” Jason said distractedly, sliding the swords into their sheaths. He froze, eyes widening. No. He slowly turned around.

Fuck.

Akhi?” Damian asked, brow furrowing.

Jason took a deep breath. Staycalmstaycalmstaycalm. “What,” oh well, he tried, “the fuck!”

Damian’s eyes widened and he took a small step back. Mara stiffened. Good, they knew just how badly they had fucked up. Jason grabbed them both by the collar, cloth bunching in his fists. Jesus Christ, they weren’t even wearing League attire! He marched towards the door, hauling the two eight-year-olds along.

Akhi!” Damian protested, feet scuffing the floor.

“You are not supposed to be here,” Jason hissed. “Where the fuck is Bruce!” They didn’t answer. Jason growled and dropped them, pointing at the wall. “Sit,” he ordered in a dangerous voice.

They sat.

Jason glared at them as he tapped the comm in his ear that Bruce had forced him to take. Static crackled for a second before Bruce’s harried voice said, “-here somewhere, keep looking!”

“Bruce,” he said, in a dangerously cheerful voice. All noise cut off.

“Jason,” Bruce finally replied.

“Hi, quick question for you,” Jason said, voice switching from unnaturally sweet to dark and furious with the next sentence. “Why the fuck are the kids I told you to protect here with me in the middle of Gotham city without a bat in sight?”

Tense silence.

“Because if this is your definition of ‘protecting’ I think I’m going to have to reconsider leaving them with you.” That much was true. Jason might have been internally panicking. Just a bit. The problem was, Ra’s was definitely more dangerous than most of Gotham, especially if the kids stayed in the goddam manor and no one went blabbing about their existence. Bruce still hadn’t answered. “Tick tock Bruce. I don’t have much time.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen.”

Jason clicked off the comm and turned the full force of his gaze back on Damian and Mara. They had perked up at his threat to take them with him, looking up at him hopefully. “Don’t get any ideas, brats,” Jason said icily. “If you end up going with me you’ll spend the entire mission in a cell on emergency rations.” They shrunk back. Jason looked away, trying to stem the flood of panic at the thought of them wandering around Gotham unsupervised. Anything could have happened to them, kidnapping, trafficking, mugging-

“Master,” one of his agents said. Jason turned to look at him, silently relieved for the distraction. “Kohler would like to confirm some plan alterations with you.”

Jason hesitated for a moment. “Where is she?”

“By the van, Master.”

“Watch them,” Jason ordered, pointing at the kids. “Take your eyes off them and I take them off you.”

The man didn’t blink at the threat, nodding and turning to the children sitting against the wall. Jason glanced at them once more before stalking away. Mila was standing next to the large, discreet van parked just outside the door of the warehouse, looking over a tablet and talking quietly with another woman. Jason glanced inside and couldn't help but grin at the rocket launcher tucked next to a box of smaller weapons. Those things were so much fun. The women looked up and bowed quickly as he joined them before filling him in on the situation.

A few minutes later he was interrupted from his perusal of satellite images and risk assessments by a car pulling up to the curb. Bruce climbed out. Bruce, as in not Batman. Bruce wearing jeans and a sweater which made Jason blink for a second but still.

“The fuck are you doing here?” Jason demanded, giving Mila the tablet and a thumbs up before marching over. Shiva’s daughter materialized at the man’s side but Jason didn’t let himself hesitate in his charge.

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “You wanted me to come…?”

“I mean,” Jason hissed, “what are you doing here as Bruce Wayne?”

Bruce gave him a flat look. “It is ten in the morning, Jason. Besides, that would attract undue attention to your movements and the children.”

“Like tabloid-infected Brucie Wayne won’t?!”

“This way there is less chance of a villain taking note. Besides,” he brushed a hand down his sweater, “I’m in stealth mode.”

Jason stared at the man, speechless. Was that. Was that a joke?! His eyes flicked to Cassandra. She didn’t blink, dark eyes boring into his. Bruce just looked at him patiently. “Are you- I don’t even know how to respond to that.” Oh God, this was him trying to bond wasn’t it? Break down his walls with dad jokes and a grin? No. No fucking way in hell. Jason scowled. “This had better not affect the kids, Wayne.” A tiny flicker of the corner of his left eye. Direct hit.

“Yes, speaking of the children, where are they?” A flare of anger in his eyes and Jason felt a surge of protectiveness. Sure he was pissed as hell at their antics but they were his responsibility.

“Oh fuck off, I already yelled at them.” Well. Sort of. They got the point, he was sure.

“Hm.” The hard look in Bruce’s eyes did not lighten.

Jason rolled his eyes. He could probably try harder to get the man to lay off but a small -- very, very small -- part of him was slightly gleeful at the idea of them getting a bat-lecture. He would step in if Bruce went overboard. “They’re inside.”

His agent -- Jamal, that was his name -- was standing in parade rest -- the man had been a soldier before being recruited by Talia --, staring steadily at Damian and Mara, who were whispering to each other. Jason cleared his throat loudly. Any other time he might have had to hide a smirk at the way they jumped apart from each other, but panic and anger were still boiling inside him. “Plotting more daring escapes?” he asked dryly.

“Damian. Mara,” Bruce said.

“Father,” Damian replied warily. Mara was staring at the floor, her short hair hiding her eyes. Jason took in her posture with narrowed eyes and shortened the amount of time he would let Bruce lecture.

“You’re dismissed, Jamal,” he said, glancing at the assassin. The man bowed and left.

Bruce had his arms folded, which never meant anything good for the person he was upset with. “I am looking forward to your explanation for your actions,” he said.

Damian straightened his spine and stood up, tilting his chin defiantly. Jason raised one eyebrow slightly. This oughta be good. “My mother is missing,” the boy said. “I deserve to be on the team that helps find her.”

“From where I’m standing the only thing you deserve is to be grounded for disobeying both of your guardians,” Bruce replied.

Damian blinked, unused to the wording. “Confined to the house,” Jason supplied, reeling slightly from his inclusion in Bruce's statement. The boy’s eyes widened in understanding then narrowed in anger.

“Mother needs help! I can help!”

Jason could hear the note of desperation in his voice and sighed. His anger was dissolving and it was highly annoying. “And I am going to help her. So are her best.” He went down on one knee and put his hands on Damian’s shoulders -- he still towered over the kid. “I will find her and I will return with her. But you need to stay here where you are safe. I can’t focus on saving Talia and watching you at the same time. Trust me Damian, if I could take you with me and keep you safe I would. But I can’t.” Damian tried to look away but Jason wouldn’t let him. “hal tafahum <do you understand>?”

Na’am <yes>,” he whispered.

“Good.” Jason stood up and looked at Mara. “The same goes for you, Mara. Talia is important but I’m not sacrificing either of you to get her back. And if I did she’d probably kill me.”

Mara ducks her head but the set to her shoulders is pleased, if still doubtful. Jason ruffled her hair and wrapped his arm around Damian’s neck, pulling him in for a noogie. The boy squawked and flailed furiously. Jason let him go with a push towards Mara and the door. “Ok, brats, get outta here. I got grown-up things to plan.”

“Tt, as if you are fit for the title,” Damian snarked.

Jason rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Get moving.” They had already said goodbye before he left, in the privacy of their shared room. He wasn’t about to drag this out by repeating it. Not when he was on a time limit. Not when Bruce was watching. Speaking of, the man had started to walk after the kids. Jason’s hand snapped out, wrapping around Bruce’s arm. He turned to look back. “Lose them again,” Jason said, eyes hard and uncompromising and very, very cold, “and I’ll flay you alive.”

Bruce’s face showed a flash of wariness and...sadness? before shuttering closed. He nodded understanding and Jason let go of his arm. Bruce hesitated. “You still have-”

“Comm and trackers, yeah. Go.”

The man finally ducked out of the warehouse and Jason felt something in his chest give a little, making it easier to breathe. Cassandra was still standing a few feet away. He glanced at her. She tilted her head and frowned slightly in concentration. “Will...protect.” He nodded sharply and she turned and disappeared through the door. Jason let out a long breath through his nose and marched back to where he had left the supplies he had collected.

A few minutes later he stood at the entrance to the warehouse, watching as the last of the boxes were loaded into the vans. “Let’s move out!” he called, swinging into the passenger seat of the lead van. Soon they would be out of Gotham and he could breathe the air without having flashbacks to freezing winters and desperate actions. Jason grabbed the tablet that Mila had been showing him and began pouring over the plans again. He had to focus. He was fine, the kids were fine, Talia was not. The cover of the tablet creaked as his fists tightened on it, the sound of gravel crunching under big feet and childish voices begging ringing in his ears.

***

Sand didn’t crunch, it squeaked or sort of swished, depending on the location and what shoes you were wearing and how good you were at stealth. Jason’s heavy boots didn’t make a sound as he crept towards the faintly pulsing signal from the tracker. Mila and Jamal were behind him, five others spread out to surround any lingering assassins. Jason didn’t expect much resistance; if any of the League had stayed behind he would never have gotten that phone call. Unless it was a trap. A small, wiry boy, probably only just starting puberty, popped out from behind a dune. Which was why they had scouts. “All clear, Master,” he whispered. Jason nodded and continued, moving a bit faster now.

They soon reached the first bodies.

A flick of his fingers had Mila and Jamal checking for pulses, even though they all knew the chances that someone had survived were almost nil. Jason kept moving. There was only one body he was really interested in. A flash of green -- the royal color of the al Ghuls -- caught his attention and he hurried over to it. Only the highest ranking members of the League were allowed such an honor and only one of such rank had gone with Talia. He fell to his knees by the body and pressed his fingers to the jugular, feeble hope fluttering in his chest. Nothing. Jason sat back on his heels, staring at the body, the cell phone dropped next to her hand, the trickle of blood from her lips. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard.

The cause of death was clear, a bullet to the chest. Jason’s eyes widened and then narrowed, he snapped a picture of the wound before carefully examined the body for other injuries. Something was seriously off here. He glanced at the face and closed his eyes for a moment, pushing his detective instincts off to the side. There were more important things to deal with first.

It took a minute for Jason to force himself to move. He carefully closed Azadeh’s eyes and mouth and arranged her limbs in alignment with her body. He paused for a moment, looking down at Talia’s second before snapping his fingers at the boy who had been scouting. He moved forward and handed him a large white cotton cloth. Jason covered the body and just stood there for a second. “la 'aftarid 'anak muslim <I don’t suppose you’re muslim>,” he asked the boy, voice more quiet than usual.

la sayidi <No, sir>,” the boy said.

Jason sighed. He didn’t know enough about Islam to know the funeral rites aside from the very basics. Ra’s wasn’t big on any kind of religion so neither was Talia. He knelt back down and put a hand on the shrouded figure. “Rest in peace, Azadeh,” he whispered, his voice coming dangerously close to cracking. “May you find joy in Allah’s halls.” He didn’t remember anything about being dead, but he hoped, for Azadeh’s sake, that there was something that came after. Something that made the dumpster-fire of this life worth it. Jason didn’t move for a few minutes, head bowed over the body, but eventually he got up. “See to it that they are buried as they would wish,” he ordered the silent figures that had gathered around him. Normally they wouldn’t have time to do anything other than make a mass grave, if that, but Jason had a new clue that he needed to figure out, a wrench that brought their plan to a screeching halt. He waved Mila over as he marched back to their jeeps. She jogged to keep up.

“We need to regroup,” Jason said.

“Master?”

Jason showed her the picture he had taken of the bullet wound. “What League assassin do you know that uses guns as their first choice?”

Her eyes widened. “None.”

“Exactly.” Jason stuffed his phone back in his pocket. “This wasn’t the League.”

Chapter Text

Jason paced back and forth in the hotel room, fingers of his left hand tapping against his thigh while his other hand held a cell phone. “I don’t care what you have to do, just get it done! ...Yes, I am aware that Talia’s position is unstable right now but that does not mean that-” he gritted his teeth in frustration. “Cut me off again and I will have your tongue,” he hissed. “You are under the employ of my mistress and you will follow her orders. ...I am her operating second, I assure you I am aware of her wishes.” He ran a hand through his hair. Someone knocked on the door and he switched the phone to his left hand, glancing through the peephole before opening the door. Mila stepped in, opening her mouth to say something, but stopped when Jason held up a hand. “Unless you wish for your protection as a member of Talia al Ghul’s forces to be revoked, you will do the job you are paid for. Am I understood? ...Good. Get on it. And then maybe go spend some time with your husband and daughter. I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you.” He hung up the phone and barely refrained from throwing it at the wall. Only the memory of Talia’s voice saying ‘never let them see your weakness’ kept him calm as he looked at Mila. “Yes?”

“Master, we have contacted all the independent agents who might know something. So far only two have responded; Cheshire said that she doesn’t, and I quote, ‘fuck with Talia’. She did offer her services in finding Mistress Talia, for a hefty sum of course.”

Jason tilted his head. “I’ll keep that in mind. Who else answered?”

“Deadshot. He said there had been a contract but ‘none of the big-timers are dumb enough to go up against the al Ghuls.’ Direct quote.”

Jason straightened. “Get him on the phone. I want to know everything he knows about this contract. How much they were offering, what time he saw it, the group’s name if they gave it, everything. Get our people tracking it.”

Mila bowed. “Of course, Master.” She walked quickly from the room and Jason locked the door behind her before sitting at his desk. He took a moment to enjoy being off his feet -- fuck, that made him sound like an old man -- before tapping the comm unit in his ear.

“Oracle.”

“I’m here, Ghost. What’s up?”

“Is that seriously the name you’re going with?” Jason asked, momentarily sidetracked.

“It’s easier to say than ‘Prizrak’. What’s going on? I wasn’t expecting to hear from you for a few hours.”

“There’s been a...snag in the operation.”

She immediately sounded more focused. “What kind of snag?”

“Talia wasn’t taken by the League.”

Babs sucked in a sharp breath. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah. I’ve got my people looking around for who else could have done it-” a notification popped up on his laptop and he clicked it, “aaand I’ve just gotten some info from Deadshot about a hit that was put out on Talia. I’ll forward it to you.”

“Talia knew she was being targeted by someone other than the League?” He could hear the slightly judgemental tone in her modulated voice. He rolled his eyes.

“She gets a lot of those, Oracle. Small fry who feel like they’ve been wronged tryna get someone who can take on the shark.”

“That was terrible,” she told him. He could hear the tapping of a keyboard through the comm. “Sharks aren’t even part of that metaphor.”

“It’s implied,” he said, reading through the information Deadshot had been able to give. “There’s not much here.”

Babs hummed in acknowledgment. “Hopefully enough. How’d the rest of the mission go? How do you know it wasn’t the League?”

“Her people were killed by bullets. League doesn’t use those except as a last resort, and never to the back of the skull.”

The typing paused. “So there were no survivors?” she asked, her voice softening.

“No.”

“...I’m sorry, Ghost.”

“They were just footsoldiers,” Jason said, gritting his teeth against the memory of Azadeh’s blood-spattered face. “Hardly important.”

“You seemed pretty worried about Talia’s second; Azadeh?”

“No.”

Babs took the hint and dropped it. “I can try and track the computer the hit originated from but if these people have any idea what they’re doing it’ll be a dead end.”

“It’s our best chance.” A moment of silence. “How’re the brats?”

“They’re okay. She won’t turn her back on anyone but that’s not exactly unusual for her. He is...frankly, I think he’s been stalking Robin.”

“Heh.” Jason grinned wolfishly at the thought. “Has he scared the Replacement off yet?”

“No.” Babs’ voice was dripping with disapproval but Jason ignored the small part of him that wanted to apologize. “But Batman was not pleased.”

“When is he ever?” Jason’s eyes narrowed as the full implications of that statement caught up to him, flippancy abandoned. His next words came out in a growl. “What did he do?”

“Relax,” Babs said calmly. “He lectured for a bit and they’re both already grounded for running away but that’s it.” She hesitated before plowing onward. “You know B doesn’t cross any lines.”

Silence. Jason worked his jaw from side to side.

“Well,” he finally said, “lot’s changed in a few years.”

“Losing a family member will do that,” she said softly. Jason stiffened.

“I’ll let you get back to tracking that contract. Thanks for your help.”

“Wait, Ja-”

He hung up.

A moment of silence passed before Jason sighed and turned his attention back to his laptop, shrugging the tension out of his shoulders. He typed out a few emails to non-League underlings, updating them that Talia would be occupied with another project and outlining their tasks for the next few days. He had hated the long, tedious hours that Talia made him pour over every aspect of the ‘boring’ parts of her work until he understood it almost as well as she did, but now he was grateful for the knowledge. One email he took extra care with, rewriting it twice. He sat back in his chair and read it over a final time before adding Talia’s signature. It wouldn’t do for Luthor to think anything was wrong and the guy wasn’t an idiot, no matter how he acted when it came to Superman.

Finally, Jason hit send and shut the laptop. He stretched, kicking off the desk and rolling backwards, pulling off his shirt as he stood and tossing it over the back of the chair. A hot shower sounded like heaven right about now.

***

Steph kicked off the wall, backflipping over a mugger’s head and nailing him in the temple with her boot. He dropped like a stone. “Ha! 12 for me!” she crowed, helping the shaking woman to her feet and retrieving her purse. “Are you okay to get home by yourself?” she asked. “I can walk you if you want.”

“I- I’ll be fine,” she stammered.

“If you’re sure,” Steph said, part of her wanting to follow the woman anyway, just to be sure, and the other part saying that she was fine, there were other people to help. Not to mention a bet to win.

“Yes, thank you.” The woman speed-walked away and Steph turned her attention back to the comm in her ear.

“As I was saying, that’s 12 for me. What does that put us at...4 my favor?”

“Make that one,” Tim -- Robin, think of him as Robin, that way there’ll be less of a chance of you screwing up and saying his name out loud -- said with a grunt.

“What?!”

“Better get moving if you don’t want to be cleaning bat guano after training for a week,” the jerk cackled. Steph got a running start and shot her grapple, enjoying the way her muscles burned as she raced across the rooftops.

“At least if I’m in the Cave I won’t have to deal with the Demon.” Ti- Robin just grunted. She could hear the wind whipping around him through the comm. She snorted. The hostility between the sixteen-year-old and the eight-year-old was hilarious. “Don’t tell me you’re not trying to avoid him at least a little bit.”

“I’d focus on what’s happening around you, Batgirl,” he said. She heard a shout and a thud through the comm. “We’re tied.”

“Oh no. Whatever shall I do.” An alarm pinged on her gauntlet and she switched directions. “I’d get ready to scrub, Boy Wonder,” she said, crouching on the roof and surveying the street.

“Focus on the mission or you’ll both be cleaning after training,” Batman’s gruff voice said through the comm. Steph winced slightly. She had forgotten he was there.

“Buzzkill,” Tim said, with all the cavalierness of someone who wasn’t afraid of being locked out. Steph shook her head and focused back on the street.

Four guys in balaclavas were holding up a convenience store, waving around their guns like amateurs. She hesitated for a second, eyeing the bright lights, before grappling down the building. She wasn’t Nightwing, she only had one swan dive in her per night. She snuck around back, finding the electrical panel. ‘Always make sure the civilians are out of danger’, Nightwing’s voice echoed in her memory. She set a small charge and crept inside, edging through the storage room and cracking open the door. The cashier was calmly putting money in a bag. She had expected him to be more nervous but, hey, he was older and this was Gotham. He’d probably had this happen to him before. She let out a slow, silent breath, centering herself. There would be no time for mistakes once everything started.

Pulling a smoke pellet from her belt, Steph edged the door open a bit more and -- glancing once more at the cashier -- threw it. It hit a rack of chips on the other side of the store with a clank and the thieves whipped around, guns at the ready. She activated the pellet and set off the charge at the same time, diving forward and pulling the cashier down behind the counter as the store was plunged into half-darkness, lit only by a flickering streetlight outside. Panicked shouting filled the air as the four guys whipped around, bullets spraying across the store. One hit the slushy machine and red frozen goodness started pouring all over the floor.

“Wasteful,” Steph said, popping out from behind the candy aisle and punching him in the stomach. She followed it up with a knee to the face and slammed his head into a freezer. By that time, the other three guys had finally noticed her and she had to dive back behind the candy to avoid their haphazard fire. Steph grinned wildly and grabbed a few batarangs from her belt. There was nothing like being in mortal danger but knowing you could handle it. It was all the excitement without the panic. She crept towards the end of the aisle, ducking as a box of Capri Suns exploded next to her.

Respect the Pouch!” she bellowed, hurling her batarangs. The matte black weapons disappeared in the dark but she knew how to track their movement. Two of them slammed into their targets and the men dropped the now-useless guns, giving her the opening she needed to vault over a shelf and roundhouse kick one of them in the head. She ducked under the second guy’s clumsy swing and smacked him in the throat. He doubled over, revealing the guy standing behind him. Who was holding a gun. That was pointed at Steph. Her eyes widened and she dropped like a stone, rolling out of the way as bullets split the air above her.

Steph pressed her back against one of the isles. Her mind was racing as she tried to work out a plan. This was fine, she could totally take one guy. Two guys; the one she hit in the throat had finally stopped coughing and was walking around now. Great. This was totally doable, she just needed to get her momentum back. She took a deep breath and lunged to the side, flinging a gooperang that covered the barrel of the last gunman’s weapon. A blow to the back of her head sent her staggering and she whirled around. The guy she had punched in the throat was behind her, fists raised and a nervous expression on his face. She bared her teeth in a mockery of a smile and charged forward.

Five seconds later and there was only the one guy left, and he was pretty busy trying to unstick his hand from his gun. He kept glancing nervously over at her as he pried away at the hardened goop covering his hand and weapon, fingers shaking as the stuff didn’t budge.

“Yeah, lemme save you the trouble,” Steph said, stalking forward.

It wasn’t until she had collected her weapons -- maybe she could leave the fact that her third batarang missed its target out of her report? -- and was out of the building, stretching her arms over her head to loosen up tight shoulders caused by momentary...alarm -- bats didn’t get scared -- that she noticed the voice in her ear.

“Batgirl come in. Batgirl. Batgirl respond.” Batman sounded tense but when did he not?

“What’s up, B?” she asked, careful to keep any shakiness from almost being shot out of her voice.

There was a pause that could mean the man was breathing a sigh of relief. Or he could be simmering with rage. That second one was probably more likely, considering her track record. “Are you hurt? There were gunshots.”

“Nah, I’m fine. Just some bozos tryna hold up a store. I kicked their asses easy. Oh, by the way. Robin, four my favor.”

Batman sighed audibly and Steph grinned a little as she readied her grappling hook. “Wait, B, is this...concern? I knew you were just a teddy bear hiding inside a gargoyle!”

A choked noise came over the comm and she was pretty sure it was Robin that made it but she could dream. “That was terrible,” the boy said. “And while you were almost getting shot, I was taking down some carjackers. So it’s only two in your favor.”

There was a very pregnant pause as both teenagers waited a second to see if Bruce would comment. Steph stared out at the sea of lights from the top of a skyscraper. Messing with Bruce was a lot like playing with fire, you had to be careful or you might end up with a nasty burn. Or covered in bat guano. Which was arguably worse.

“Head back you two,” Batman’s voice said. Steph blinked.

“Wait, what? It’s barely one!”

“We agreed I’d have until two,” Robin complained.

Now.” That was his no-nonsense voice and both teens stiffened automatically. Steph started running across the city to where she had left her bike. She could technically call it to her if she wanted, but Oracle was still working out a few bugs and she didn’t want to risk her beautiful, amazing, wonderful motorcycle to autopilot that might end up sending it into a wall. Or a car. Or a burning building standing by the harbor that would crumble into the water where Killer Croc would find it and probably eat it and-

Anway. She wasn’t risking it.

“Hey Robin,” she said, as a thought occurred to her.

“What.” Ooh, that flat tone meant he probably knew what she was about to say and was hoping she wouldn’t. Steph grinned.

“Guess this means I win, huh?”

“The bet did not weigh in Batman’s involvement,” Tim said immediately. “The conditions of the agreement were that whoever had the most takedowns at the end of patrol would win. Which is two o’clock. So technically-”

“Technically, I’ll still have more than you in an hour since neither of us are going to be getting any more. So I win. Suck it up, Boy Wonder!” she crowed. “And put on the rubber gloves!”

Enough,” Bruce growled. “What’s your ETA?”

“Fifteen minutes,” Steph said, revving her engine. Man, she loved her bike.

“Make mine ten,” Tim said, because he’s a little shit who can’t stand losing. Steph narrowed her eyes and peeling out into the street, laying low over the handlebars, feeling the smooth purr in her chest and the ends of her hair blowing in the wind as she whizzed between cars. She’d be fucked if she let him have any bragging rights tonight. She had won this fair and square!

***

“What do you mean Grandfather does not have Mother?” Damian demanded. Jason sighed from the screen on the Batcomputer.

“Just what I said, Dami. It wasn’t League methods and there’s no way Ra’s would have gone after his own daughter in a dishonorable way.”

“Then who has her?” Damian fought to keep his voice from shrilling. He had already embarrassed himself enough with this display of weakness but he really couldn’t help it. Mother was missing and now Jason was gone too and he was left all alone in his Father’s house -- Mara didn’t really count, no matter what Jason said.

“We don’t know yet. But trust me, I’m working on it. Everyone I have is on this, ok? I will find her.”

“You cannot be sure of that,” Damian said. He could feel his breath coming faster. “It has already been four days, she could easily be dead by now.”

“She’s not. Dead. Ok?” Jason’s eyes gleamed with green fire. “She’s alive and I’m going to save her and we’re all going to be together again. Got it?”

Damian looked down at the floor. He couldn’t believe it, no matter what Jason said. It just wasn’t possible to guarantee his mother’s safety. A big hand fell on his shoulder and it was such a familiar gesture he almost leaned into it before realizing that it was Father. He looked up. Father’s eyes were soft, even though the rest of his face was unmoving. He and Mother were similar like that, you had to look hard to see what they felt. Damian had gotten very good at it. When he had first met Jason he had been shocked at how loudly the teenager felt.

“We’ll find her, Damian,” Father said. He looked back up at the screen. “Are you sure you’ve given us all the information?”

Yes.” Jason looked slightly annoyed. “Deadshot wasn’t much help.”

Father hummed. “We’ll keep looking.”

“Yeah,” Jason rubbed at his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Anyway. Damian, Mara, how are you guys?”

“You mean aside from being stranded with virtual strangers as my mother is missing, possibly dead, in an unknown location?” Damian asked flatly. Jason rolled his eyes to heaven.

“Yes, exactly.”

“Passably well.”

Jason gave him an unimpressed look but forged onward. “Draw anything new?”

Damian shifted, glancing at Father out of the corner of his eye. “A few preliminary sketches, nothing more.” In truth, every time he sat down to draw the molding on a forgotten room or the budding roses through the living room window, his pencil wouldn’t cooperate. His hand jumped and jerked and he couldn’t get a clear likeness no matter how long he sat there and how many pieces of paper he used. Damian blamed Jason for this sudden affliction.

“How about you Mara?”

The girl shifted beside him and Damian hid a jump. He could have sworn his cousin was over by Pennyworth. She seemed to have taken a liking to the butler. Perhaps he should have expected it -- Pennyworth was very...personable, in a nagging, always around sort of way -- but he had never seen his cousin being friendly with anyone other than Jason. And me, I suppose, he thought, though he preferred to think of their relationship as more professional and competitive. The afternoons spent together in the compound were merely a result of Jason’s orders, not any desire for companionship. But the time together was not...disagreeable and Damian distinctly remembered at least two times the girl forgot herself and actually smiled at him. Once she may have even laughed, though she said it was a cough. And all together their extended period of enforced proximity had been alright. Maybe -- and Damian couldn’t believe he was thinking this -- she did count after all.

Jason was apparently entirely oblivious to this difficult moment for Damian as he blathered on to Mara about something inconsequential. Damian snapped his attention back on the man just as silence fell over the cave. It was some odd mix of comfortable and strained. There wasn’t much more to say -- two days was not long enough for anything to really happen -- but it was clear Jason didn’t want to sign off just yet. He stared at them both for a long moment before sighing and running a hand through his hair, fingers fisting over the white streak in the way he sometimes did when he was feeling distressed. Damian had watched Mother purse her lips at the tell several times, but she didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure why, Jason used to have several other tells that had been trained out of him, surely this one could be as well.

“I gotta go, brats. Hafta follow up on some leads and you two need to get to bed.”

Mara nodded and Damian scoffed, both at the order and her immediate acceptance. “I am not a child in need of-”

“Humor me,” Jason said, the corner of his mouth twitching up. Damian kicked lightly at the ground.

“Very well.”

“Thanks, kiddo. I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow, ok?” He hesitated, eyes shifting to the others in the room. “ana bahibik <I love you>.” After that hasty declaration, the screen went blank. Damian sighed quietly. Father’s hand fell back on his shoulder and he looked up.

“He’ll be alright,” Father said. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Damian nodded silently, feeling a bit more hopeful. If both Jason and Father believed that this mission would be a success, then who was he to disagree. After all, Batman always knew what to do, right? That’s what his mother said. “Goodnight, Father,” Damian said, turning and heading for the stairs.

“Goodnight, Damian. Goodnight, Mara.”

The grandfather clock closed behind them and Damian glanced at Mara. She had a small smile dancing on her lips and Damian wished that he had heard what Jason said to her. He felt a stab of...something in his gut and folded his arms with a scowl. “You always agree with Akhi right away,” he said, voice sharper than he had intended. She looked at him warily.

“Of course I do.”

Damian sniffed. “I suppose it is only natural, with your relationship.”

“I’m sure I do not know what you mean, Ibn ‘ama.” Her voice was steady but her spine had stiffened. She was reminding him of their relation. As if being the bastard daughter of a disowned child was anything worth bragging about. The only reason she was given the time of day was because of her father’s desperate sacrifice.

“Teacher and student, obviously,” Damian said. “As that is clearly all you will ever be.” Mara’s steps actually faltered and Damian pulled ahead, leaving her at the top of the stairs. She recovered quickly, but not fast enough to reach the room before him. He slipped in and held the door open just enough to see her. “If you don’t mind, I would rather not spend the night with a nobody.” He closed the door and locked it, turning and surveying the room. Jason would find Mother and bring her back and everything would start making sense again. Damian changed into his sleeping clothes and lay down on the big, empty bed. The moon shone in through a crack in the drapes. Damian stared up at the dark shadows in the ceiling. A thread of something new curled around in his stomach and he hugged a pillow to it. Jason and Mother would come back and Jason would realize that Mara wasn’t important after all. He was Damian’s shaqiq, not Mara’s.

***

Jason stared at the screen for a few seconds after he hung up the video call. He sighed and rubbed at his face. What he had told the kids was true, he really needed to keep following up on any leads, keep his agents’ noses to the grind. But he was seriously tired. It felt like he had gotten some of the desert sand into his eyes. He stood up and looked at the door. He had to find Talia as soon as possible but...she had always been telling him to take care of himself. ‘You are no use to me dead or hurt, and that is all your foolishness will get you,’ she had told him after one too many all-nighters in a row. After kicking his ass at sparring to prove her point. Jason turned to the bed. Fine, sleep now, get an early start tomorrow. Good plan.

He never made it to the bed.

The tinkle of shattering glass alerted him and he snapped his head around, feet sliding into a defensive stance. Those windows were functionally bulletproof, nothing should have been able to get in. Before he could consider the ramifications of this or do anything at all helpful there was a sharp sting in his neck. He reached up and yanked out a dart. Tranq. Strong stuff too, he could already feel his vision blurring. Fuck no, he wasn’t going down like this. The whole world tilted slightly to the left. He fumbled for the alarm in his pocket before realizing he was wearing pajamas. Fuck. A shadow appeared at the window, moonlight glinting off orange armor.

“You,” Jason slurred, furious despite his quickly-loosening hold on consciousness. There was also a pang of betrayal and maybe sadness but he was going to blame that on the drugs. “Gonna fuckin’ kill you.” He staggered forward but the man seemed to move at superspeed -- that was probably the drugs too -- and he fell to his knees. The last thing he heard was a familiar voice that sounded...regretful?

“Sorry kid, it only counts if they have both of you.”

Chapter Text

Cassandra waved goodnight to Tim and turned down the hall. She felt the old wood floor shift under her feet as she moved down the hall. She could have avoided the creaky spot, danced around it or over it on the balls of her feet, but she didn’t. She didn’t have to be silent here. This was her home. She could be as loud as she wanted. Well, except when everyone else was trying to sleep. But even then she could make noise as long as it didn’t wake anyone up. Cass opened her door and paused. She didn’t look back, but tilted her head forward in invitation before stepping inside, leaving the door open. She pulled open the curtains. The moon wasn’t visible, but she didn't mind. She liked seeing the sunrise. The pinks and yellows crept up on the blue-black sky like a bruise healing, wiping away the bad things that happened while the Bat flew and monsters walked the streets.

A  small figure moved to stand beside her and she glanced down. Shoulders hunched and fists clenched. Hurt. So many people in their family hurt. Cass did not understand how they missed it, how they couldn’t see. They were all so quick to spot a limp or sprain, it just didn’t make sense. Angry too. Even Tim, so good at patterns and machines, not so good with people, would have known that. Cass cocked her head to the side and turned, sitting down on the big window seat in one smooth movement.

“Sit,” she said. Mara watched her carefully, eyes scanning her up and down for a threat. Cass did not move. Mara slowly edged forward and sat at the very edge of the cushion. Cass looked away and swung her legs slightly. “Is hard,” she finally said.

Mara looked at her but didn’t say anything for several seconds. “What is,” she finally asked, after the silence had stretched. Her voice was rough, as if her throat was tight with feeling. Cass knew how that felt. She had needed to keep her feeling inside too. But not anymore.

“When...person...love,” she grimaced, “be mean.”

Mara’s spine straightened out of the minute slouch she had fallen into. “I don’t know what you are referring to.”

Cass frowned. “Talk...small.”

The girl just looked at her for a long few moments. “What do you mean?”

“Damian?” The flicker of her eyelids gave her away, the way her nails dug into her legs.

“My cousin is a relative but that does not mean I harbor any affection-” Mara froze as Cass tapped her hand. “I...do not love him.”

Cass just stared at her. Mara stared right back. Minutes ticked by. Finally, Mara looked away.

“It is not...shame. To love.”

“Of course it is!” Mara yelled. “Affection is weakness!”

“In League...yes. Here, no.”

“We are not staying here, no matter what Damian thinks.” She spat the name like poison and Cass exhaled silently.

“Go...find.”

“What?” Mara looked up, startled, as Cass jumped to her feet. “Wait, where are you going?”

“Find Damian.”

“You cannot just-”

Cass side-stepped Mara’s attempt to block her and marched down the hall.

“Wait!” she yelled. Cass winced slightly at the volume. Something thudded against Tim’s wall that sounded a great deal like a shoe. Dick’s door cracked opened.

“Wa’s goin’ on,” he mumbled blearily.

“Sleep,” Cass said. “We are fine.”

He squinted at her and raised a finger. She could see where he still favored his stab wound. “Ok, but if you wake me up again I’m coming out there.” He pointed at them both in a way that might have been threatening if he wasn’t listing slightly to the right before closing his door. Cass frowned at Mara.

“Quiet. Late.”

“It is early if anything,” she mumbled but she fell silent and that was good enough for Cass. The door to their room offered barely any resistance and Cass easily ducked the knife, idly listening to the sound it made as it split the air. She looked impassively at Damian, who was crouched on the bed, another knife held at the ready. Fear ran like lightning down his arms, anger coiled in the twist of his fingers on the hilt of the blade.

“Come,” she said, turning on her heel and heading towards the stairs. There was a moment of silence before small feet padded after her.

***

Awareness returned slowly, little details making their way through the fog he was floating in.

The steady beeping of an EKG. Hospital?

The sharp smell of antiseptic. Why would he be in a hospital?

The hum of a generator, cool air on his skin. The Cave?

Bright lights burning through his eyelids. Not the Cave, too bright.

A sharp pounding between his ears. Injury? Drugs? The heart monitor sped up a little as he struggled his way to the edge of the fog and he stilled, slowing his breathing and waiting for the beeping to calm again.

‘Make them think you are asleep,” his memory whispered.

Abn.”

Pretending to sleep went out the window. Jason's eyes snapped open and he jerked upright. Or, he tried to. Something was keeping his arms flat against the bed. A glance down showed white plasticky cases attached to the bed that wrapped his arm halfway to the elbow. He dismissed it for the moment; he had more important things to worry about. Namely, the woman lying in the hospital bed to his right. “T-” Names! his head shrieked. “...T.” He scanned her up and down. “You’re alive.” That was pretty much all he could say. Talia’s skin was pale and she had deep bags under her eyes. Her arms were also encased in the strange restraints. Her hair was greasy and...Jason swallowed. He always glanced at people’s inner arms when they were visible, a habit left over from when his mom was alive. Talia’s were speckled with track marks. “T-” his voice cracked. “What….”

Talia followed his gaze. “They are most interested in our blood,” she said quietly.

“Our blood?”

“More precisely, what is in our blood.” Talia looked exhausted and Jason wondered how long she had been here. How soon after she last spoke to him was she taken?

“I’m gonna get you outta here, T,” he said, pulling at the restraints. He quickly realized that his hands were being held still by some kind of foam. He couldn’t even move his fingers. “What nut designed these things?” He jerked harder, skin twisting uncomfortably.

“That will not work, Jason. I have tried.” Okay, so real names were a thing apparently. He paused in his efforts and eyed her.

“No offense Tals but I think I’m a bit stronger than you.” She raised an eyebrow. He shrugged. “Brute strength has never been your style.”

“You will succeed only in hurting yourself. If we are to escape you need to be in peak condition.”

He grimaced at his arm. His skin was starting to turn red where it met the restraint. “Okay, so what’s the game plan? When do they take us out of these things?”

“As of yet, when drugged, with several armed guards to ensure cooperation. They monitor the equipment constantly. They will likely come soon to see you.”

“Can’t wait.”

“Do not underestimate them Jason. They have a dangerous advantage on their side.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that? Aside from Deathstroke.” He spat the name, trying to dismiss the clenching in his chest as a side-effect of the drugs.

A hint of concern shone in Talia’s eyes. He could never hide anything from her. She remained silent for a moment before sighing. “They believe they are in the right.”

***

Cass stood barefoot on the cold stone floor of the Cave. Damian and Mara stared up at her. “Fighting,” she said. “Stop.” Damian scowled and Mara’s arms stiffened at her sides. Cass cocked her head to one side and eyed them. “Spar,” she said. “Not fight.” She walked over to a rack of weapons by the wall and grabbed two bo staffs. She tossed them to the children. “Spar,” she ordered. Damian and Mara looked at each other in silence. The sound of the waterfalls that powered the computer and the lights was a soothing noise in the distance, the cool air on her skin and the smell of sweat and the solution they cleaned the weapons with stinging slightly in her nose. Cass could wait; this breathed home to her just as much as her soft lilac walls and the sunrise burning away the dark. The children were tense. They weren’t sure if she was serious, if she was tricking them. It was sad, but she understood. Teachers were cruel, their lessons bloody. But not her. She would not let herself be. She made a slight gesture of encouragement when they glanced over at her. It was funny, how they said they did not love each other with words and glares and fists when their stances showed protect and care and their smiles and glares so often came together. She listened to the churn of the water and the soft whirring of the computer. They would not wait much longer.

Mara charged forward, face twisted in a snarl, her whole body screaming hurt and rage. That was okay. Bruce had told her that she did not need to be a weapon without feeling. They didn’t either. Damian snarled right back, blocking her brutal strike and retaliating with one of his own. They battled back and forth across the mats. They were closely matched. Damian was a little better than Mara in his technique, Cass could see. He used moves Mara didn’t know and struggled to block. But she fought so hard and fast that Damian rarely got a hit in without getting a bruise of his own. If this had been Dick watching, he would have stopped the spar when Mara’s staff smashed into Damian’s nose. He would have seen the blood and heard the crunch and immediately started medical treatment. But Cass could see them, and if they stopped now they would be no better than before, all tangled up with sad and mad and hurt. So she said nothing and they fought on.

It didn’t take long before the staffs were abandoned for more direct attacks and Cass narrowed her eyes and watched more carefully. She was not surprised -- sometimes you needed to hit and feel it -- but this was more dangerous, more personal than the bo. Cass decided that if anyone lost a tooth they could say it was normal. Children lost teeth at this age, right? Damian’s fist slammed into Mara’s face and left a cut on her eyebrow. They were both panting, both moving slower than they had at the beginning. Exhaustion dripped off of their slack fingers and sagging shoulders. One final clash ended with them both struggling to rise again. Cass stepped forward, pleased that all their teeth seemed to be in place. “Enough.”

They looked up at her, bleeding and bruised, but the hurt and scared and anger was gone, drained away. It would come back, she knew, but maybe not as strong. Maybe not for a while. Now they could sleep and not think of the monsters that lived in their heads. She smiled and gestured for them to follow her to the med bay. Now they could deal with that blood.

***

Dick waved at a few of his coworkers as he made his way to his desk. He grimaced at the pile sitting in his in-tray and took a long swig of his coffee. He would need the caffeine.

“Hey, Grayson! You’re back!”

“Menzoa,” Dick said cheerfully, more than happy to be distracted from the stack of paperwork. “How ya been?”

“Forget me, man, how are you? Family emergency kept you away for like a week. Not like I don’t get it, though. Surprised to see you back so soon, actually.”

“Uh, yeah. Everyone’s okay, thankfully.” Dick squinted at his coworker’s grin. It felt like he was missing something.

Menzoa laughed. “Your old man take the news well, then? I guess he probably expected it, with how he sleeps around.”

Dick blinked. Menzoa apparently realized that his comment might not be appropriate. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah...sorry. He’s still your old man, I shouldn’ta said that.”

Thankfully, Dick was good at thinking on his feet. Came with the job. “Eh, you’re not wrong,” he said with a chuckle, draping one arm over the back of his chair. “But, uh, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

Now it was Menzoa’s turn to blink in surprise. “Wait, seriously? You haven’t looked at the news today? Or, I dunno, Twitter?”

“....No?” He had turned it off after one too many concerned calls from his friends wanting to know why he suddenly went off-grid. Not that he wasn’t grateful but...he needed space to think about all the crazy things that were happening. He wasn’t even sure what he would tell them if he could.

“Dude! It’s all over the place!” Menzoa turned to yell to some of the other cops. “Yo, Grayson doesn’t know!” Dick, meanwhile, was pulling out his phone and turning it on. This couldn’t be good, not with how the other cops were looking over and either laughing or watching him pityingly. He typed in his password and his gut clenched as notifications began streaming in, not just from social media but also from any news outlets that mentioned certain keywords -- thanks, Babs. He warily clicked an article by the Gotham Gazette -- not by Vicki Vale for once which...small blessings, he guessed. His eyes widened at the picture that took up his whole screen.

Fuck.”

Ignoring Menzoa’s surprised shout and the concerned gazes of the other cops, Dick charged out of the station, pulling up his contacts. He stood outside, running a hand through his hair and staring at the skyline. “Come on, come on, come on, pick up dam- Bruce?”

“You saw.” His voice was more Batman than Bruce and Dick sighed.

“Yeah. What happened? I leave for three hours and-”

“I’m handling it.”

Dick laughed mirthlessly. “Sure you are. Do they know?”

The silence on the other end of the line was answer enough.

“Bruce, this is going to be a disaster. What about you know who?”

“This...could be to our advantage.”

“How?! How could this possibly-”

“With the media watching, it will be harder for her to take them-”

“Do you really think that’ll stop her? They’ll disappear and you’ll be left with the fallout.” He sighed gustily and turned on his heel. “I’ll come back. The chief’ll understand.”

“Dick-” He hung up on whatever objection Bruce was about to spout. Bruce needed him whether he liked it or not and the kids….God, those kids were going to need someone that wasn’t emotionally distant. Dick groaned. He hated having to be the responsible adult.

The whole station was staring at him as he trudged to the chief’s office. This was exactly why he had moved to Bludhaven. He wanted to make his own mark out of Bruce’s shadow. But it turns out you can’t go from being one of Gotham’s most well-known citizens to obscurity just by moving an hour away. Go figure. No one had mentioned it, thankfully, especially not since he had proven he wasn’t interested in bribes or deals. But now? Now he would be lucky to not be kicked off the beat for being chased around by paparazzi. Dick couldn’t hold back a sigh as he knocked on Chief Berkley’s door.

“Come in!” she barked. He straightened his spine and marched in. Berkley looked surprised to see him. “Grayson, didn’t expect to see you for a while yet.”

He grimaced. “I just saw the news.”

“Christ, kid. Just now?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good grief. Siddown, Grayson, you look like you’re about to fall over.” Dick sat in one of the two chairs in front of her desk, only realizing how unsteady his legs were once he was off of them. Berkley sat back in her seat and tapped one forefinger on the arms of her chair. “I assume you’re requesting more time off.”

“Yes, I have to...they’ll need my help.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” She scoffed. “Wayne’s always seemed a bit odd but then I guess you turned out alright enough.”

Dick smiled wryly. “Thanks, Chief.”

She waved him off. “Go on, heaven knows you can do more good there than here.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank me by finding someone willing to cover that paperwork swamping your desk!” she called after him. “Better yet, take some with you!”

It turned out there were some small benefits to the world finding out you have a bastard brother and “sister”; it didn’t take nearly as much begging as Dick expected to get a few of his coworkers to divvy up some of his backed-up paperwork. It was all non-emergency -- otherwise he and Berkley would have made sure someone was taking care of it -- so he wasn’t really worried about the stuff he had to leave behind. He fit a few files into his shoulder bag and waved in response to the flurry of shouted goodbyes and good lucks.

Once he was in his car, Dick took a second and let himself rest his forehead on the steering wheel and just breathe for a second. Then he sat up and started the engine. There was no time for freaking out, not when his family needed him. And sure, the kids were...prickly… but hey, so was Bruce and they got on pretty well. They just needed some TLC and a break from assassin-ing.

The drive flew by and Dick was ridiculously grateful for the insane training he went through as Robin. He could let his mind wander, pick at the many problems that were coming their way, and not worry about getting into an accident. Multitasking was something Bats did notoriously well. That was what stopped him from running over the crowd of paparazzi camped outside the manor walls. Dick gritted his teeth and inched his car forward, trying to remain discreet but giving up and leaning on his horn when a particularly stubborn camera team didn’t move. Camera flashes rained down on him from all sides and he reminded himself very firmly that Bats don’t kill and that ramming the gate down would do more harm than good. He leaned out of the window to press the intercom and was almost blinded by a guy shoving his camera in his face.

“Ah, Master Dick, good to see you sir,” Alfred’s voice said through the intercom. Dick drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel as the gate swung open and shot through as soon as the opening was wide enough. It closed immediately behind him and he breathed a sigh of relief as the shouts and flashes faded behind him. Thank God the manor sat on such a ridiculously huge plot of land. Anyone who said it was wasteful and unnecessary had never tried to hide from the media. The white gravel crunched under his wheels as he pulled to a stop in the circle in front of the door. Dick sucked in a fortifying breath and grabbed his duffle bag from the passenger seat. The door opened before he could even knock and Dick smiled at Alfred.

“Hey Al. Long time no see.”

“Indeed.” The man smiled his signature tiny smile back but Dick could sense his exhaustion. It must have been hell for the past few hours and it wasn’t like Bruce would be any help with keeping Damian and Mara distracted.

“Where is everyone?”

“Master Bruce is in the Cave with Miss Cassandra, Master Tim and Miss Stephanie are at school, and Master Damian and Miss Mara are in the library.”

Dick cracked a smile. “Take after Jason, huh? Weird kids, all three of them.”

Alfred hummed and held out a hand. “I will take your bag up to your room.”

“That’s okay, Al, I got it. Why don’t you go sit down and have a cup of tea or something? You look about ready to fall over.” Alfred raised a single eyebrow and Dick ducked his head to hide his grin. “See you later Al!” He dashed off towards the stairs.

“No running the halls Master Dick!” Alfred called after him, exasperation clear in his voice. Dick laughed and braced one hand on the banister to flip himself over the railing and onto the second floor instead of climbing the last few steps like a ‘civilized person’. Once he was out of sight his smile dimmed. He ran a hand through his hair and walked to his bedroom to dump his stuff. A minute later he was poking his head into the library and smiling at the kids inside. They wouldn’t notice the tension in his jaw, right? They weren’t that good yet. “Hey guys-!” His mouth dropped at the sight of Mara’s clearly bandaged eyebrow and Damian’s clearly smashed nose. Not to mention the black eyes both of them sported as if it was normal. “What the-” he barely stopped himself from cursing but if Jason -- or, God forbid, Talia -- found out he did so he’d be dead, “-heck happened?”

Damian raised one eyebrow. “What are you prattling about, Grayson?”

“Who was beating you up?!”

“Oh.” Damian scoffed. “That.”

“Yes, that.” They couldn’t have snuck out, right? Holy fuck Jason would literally peel them all like a grape if they somehow managed to. He strode forward and grabbed Damian’s chin. The boy batted at his hand.

“Calm yourself, Grayson, we were just sparring.”

“Sparring shouldn’t result in this many bruises,” Dick said, eyes dark. “Where were you doing this?”

“The Cave.” Damian finally managed to wrench his head out of Dick’s grasp.

“How did you get down there alone?!”

“We were not alone. Cain was supervising.”

“Cass was-” Dick stopped. His head was spinning. Come to think of it, he remembered Cass walking around with Mara. Had Damian been there? He had been too fuzzy from exhaustion to notice. What had Cass been thinking? It was clear this ‘spar’ had been going for a while and he knew Cass. She wouldn’t just walk away. Hell, she could see what they were going to do before it happened! Why hadn’t she stopped them?  And what about Bruce? Had he even seen them? And if he had what the hell were they doing up here all alone? Dick took a deep breath. “Ok, this is what we’re going to do.” He held out a hand. “Come on, we’re going to the Cave.” Damian sniffed at the hand and didn’t move. Dick raised his eyes to heaven. “Am I going to have to tell Jason about this?”

That brought both their heads snapping up. Damian was eyeing him warily and...was that a hint of approval he saw? “Very well, Grayson,” he said, snapping his book shut and standing up with more grace than any eight-year-old should have. Mara was quick on his heels. Dick led the way down to the Cave, trying to keep his temper in check. The weird mix of emotions that still rose in his chest whenever he was in the Cave didn’t help. Even after he and Bruce had made up, there was so many conflicted memories here. Those first, amazing years -- okay, more than the first, if he was being honest -- and then those last two full of tension and fighting. He grimaced and shoved the thoughts off to the side. Cass was moving like a whirlwind on the mats and Bruce was hunched over the computer. Sometimes Dick thought his spine had fused with the chair. It was bound to happen eventually. He put his hands on his hips, standing in the middle of the Cave, right between them, and cleared his throat loudly. Cass finished a final, sweeping kick and stilled, cocking her head to one side as she watched him. Bruce didn’t even look up. That would change soon enough.

“Hey Cass,” Dick said, voice sweet in a way that never failed to signal danger. Cass’ eyes narrowed and Bruce turned in his chair. Dick had never used that voice on Cass, in the time she had been there. The man got a look at the kids and shot to his feet.

“What happened,” he growled, dropping to one knee and tilting Damian’s chin up to get a better look at his nose. He turned to Mara and ran a careful thumb just above her split eyebrow. Dick folded his arms.

“Ask Cass.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow at that and glanced at Cass, who had joined their cluster. “Cassandra?”

She frowned, clearly confused. “They spar.”

“When,” Bruce’s deep voice rumbled. Dick suppressed the desire to roll his eyes at the questions posed as statements.

“Late.” Cass glanced at Mara and the corner of her mouth quirked up. “Or early.”

“Why.”

“They were...angry. Hurt. Needed to…” she tapped her forehead and scrunched up her nose. Bruce hummed.

“Why didn’t you stop them once it escalated?”

“Needed to...fight it out.” Cass’ forehead furrowed. “What wrong?”

“Sparring doesn’t mean beating the crap out of each other, Cass!” Dick burst out. Bruce shot him an exasperated look but fuck that, the old man hadn’t even known about this. “You can’t just hit someone to get your anger or frustration out!”

Cass was starting to look annoyed. “Yes.”

“No!”

“We do.”

“Not like this,” Dick said, gesturing at the kids. “We either spar safely or fight people who deserve it.”

“Dick.” Bruce’s tone still made Dick’s mouth click shut, even after all these years, and he glowered at the man. Bruce stood up and looked at Cass, who stared up at him defiantly.

“They better!” she said. “Not fighting!”

“Because they already fought-”

Richard.” Bruce ignored Dick’s angry scoff at the name and put a hand on Cass’ shoulder. “We do use sparring and training to work out any frustration or anger we might have. I do tell you to channel that into your fighting. But we do it safely. This,” he gestured at the kids, “is not safe. If Damian hit a little lower with that strike he could have damaged Mara’s eye. As it is, they’ll both take a little while to heal. This is not how we spar. You know that.” Cass scowled. Bruce sighed and tried something else, “Do you think Jason would be happy with this?” Cass’ frown faded slightly and she finally shook her head. “Why?”

Cass shifted slightly. “They hurt.”

Bruce nodded. “Right. There are better ways to stop being angry.” Cass’ shoulders slumped slightly. Bruce patted one of them gently. “It’s alright, Cassandra. What do we do with mistakes?”

“Learn,” she muttered.

“Exactly. Now, why don’t we go get Alfred to check on those bruises.”

“He has already done so, Father,” Damian said. “He noticed them at breakfast.”

Bruce blinked. “What time is it?”

“Past ten,” Dick said, rolling his eyes. Typical Bruce, not noticing the passage of time.

“Hrn. Let’s go up anyway.” Bruce started herding Damian and Mara out of the Cave and Dick blinked incredulously. Was he seriously leaving just like that? Usually it took him, Alfred, and threats of tampering with the Batmobile to get Bruce out of the Cave. Dick cast a glance at Cass, who was watching him warily, before following. No matter how he felt about the events that led to this, he couldn’t argue with the results.

Chapter Text

Jason decided that he really fucking hated waiting for shit to happen. Well, he had known that already. But being locked up made him notice it. Hell, he couldn’t even pace or fucking twiddle his thumbs because his fucking hands were stuck in the fucking restraints that only a maniac -- a smart maniac, he had to admit -- could have designed.

Safe to say that his mental state was rapidly deteriorating.

Abn, either go back to sleep or meditate but stop squirming,” Talia said sharply.

Jason glowered at her. “What, am I breaking your immersion or something?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact.” Her eyes were closed and she lay back in the bed as if she had fucking Egyptian cotton sheets and fluffy pillows instead of scratchy, flat shit that was really there. He knew because he was currently being driven mad by the sheets and he couldn’t move enough to do anything about it. He scowled and shifted again.

A few minutes passed of Talia ignoring him and he sighed. “So, how’ve you been these past few days?”

She cracked an eye open to give him a look.

“C’mon Tals, gimme the deets!”

“I will do no such thing. You may have forgotten that we are under surveillance.”

“Then why the fuck are we using our names?”

“They already knew who I am and, by extension, you.”

“Goody,” Jason muttered.

The door opened and both of their heads swivelled to look. A doctor walked in, flipping through a clipboard. He looked up and smiled. Jason’s eyes narrowed as he analyzed the man. There was nothing remarkable about him: boring brown hair neatly combed, dull blue eyes behind a pair of glasses, usual blue scrubs and white coat. Nothing screamed ‘psychotic piece of shit’ but Jason had been trained by harmless-looking people in the past. They were often the most dangerous. “Hello Mr. al Ghul. Welcome back to the land of the living!”

Jason stared at him, expressionless. al Ghul?? He resisted the urge to turn and look at Talia. You don’t just show uncertainty in front of an enemy so he dismissed the last name and focused on boring holes in the guy. Usually his dead-eyed stare would at least make the person uncomfortable but this asshole just continued on his merry prattle.

“I am pleased to report that you are in good health! Your adrenaline levels are a little high but that’s to be expected after-”

“Being drugged and kidnapped?” Jason interrupted. He was already sick of the way this guy was acting; as if this was just your average hospital and they were there willingly.

Asshole just smiled that weirdly nice smile that made Jason want to punch his teeth in and said, “Yes, well, recruits often have initially negative reactions, but most come around eventually once they realize what we are doing here.”

That didn’t sound good. Brainwashing? “And what is that?”

“We’re saving the world, Mr. al Ghul. Or do you prefer Jason?”

He ignored the question. “Saving the world by kidnapping people and draining them of their blood?”

Asshole shook his head, that damned smile so plastered on Jason wondered if the guy had gotten a whiff of Joker gas. “Your situation is...unique, Mr. al Ghul.” He was fiddling with one of the IV lines now, scribbling something down on the clipboard. “You and your mother are in the perfect position to save hundreds, maybe millions, of lives.”

“That’s a pretty big jump, between hundreds and millions,” Jason drawled. He made his body relax, but his eyes followed the man’s every twitch.

“It all depends on how quickly and easily we are able to find what we need. And, of course, on your cooperation.” Asshole looked at him meaningfully.

Jason pulled up one corner of his mouth, lips parting to show teeth. “I can be very cooperative.” He jerked one elbow. “Lemme outta these things and I’ll show you.”

“I don’t believe that is a good idea, Mr. al Ghul,” Asshole said cheerfully. “Too much physical movement can release new chemicals into the bloodstream and we require a baseline before we do any of that.”

“I’m a pretty active person,” Jason replied. “My baseline is probably higher than other people’s.”

Asshole made a note on the clipboard. “Our tests will take that into account. Thank you.” Jason’s eye twitched. The doctor looked up. “Your mother wasn’t very forthcoming with information about you. Do you have any allergies?”

Jason just glared at him.

“No? You should tell me so that we don’t accidentally trigger a reaction.” He waited a moment before continuing, “Alright. Did you inherit the poliosis from your father? Your mother,” he nodded at Talia, “doesn’t have it.” He leaned in closer and Jason stiffened despite himself. The doctor ignored the way Jason leaned away from him and tugged lightly on his forelock. “Your skin isn’t affected, I noticed. Unusual.”

Jason seriously considered biting this guy but restrained himself. That wouldn’t help matters. With the way this was going, they’d probably fucking muzzle him.

Asshole sighed. “It would save a lot of time if you would just tell us what we need to know, but we will find out. If you have a genetic mutation it could cause difficulties in transfusions.”

“What do you want with our blood?” Jason snapped. “How exactly is it supposed to save people?” He didn’t really expect the guy to give him anything -- monologues were stupid -- but apparently it’s not just the villains in Gotham who are insane because the guy proceeded to outline his entire fucking plan right then and there.

“We were informed of some...special characteristics of your blood. Advanced healing, increased durability, that sort of thing. If we could take whatever makes that work and isolate it, increase the speed at which it works...we could heal so many injuries! Prevent so many illnesses! We have several people lined up for a clinical trial already!” The guy looked so fucking happy at the thought Jason probably would have believed his desire to help people if he hadn’t been strapped to a bed.

“And what’s with the kidnapping? Doesn’t seem very altruistic.”

“We were told that you would be...less than willing to help us. And after seeing what your mother did when we first brought her here, we are inclined to agree.”

“Who the fuck is ‘we’?”

“We are The Architects, building a better world.” The doctor beamed.

Jason could practically hear the trademark symbol at the end of that sentence. He bit his tongue against several comments on the quality of their name and slogan and settled for raising an eyebrow. Might as well go all in as long as he was revealing important information. “Who’s been doing all of this ‘informing’, anyway?”

“They asked that we not reveal anything about them,” Asshole said. “And -- pardon me -- after meeting both of you, I don’t blame them.”

One of their own, probably, someone they would recognize and be really fucking pissed about. Jason flicked through his mental profiles of each of Talia’s people. Most of them were a combination of cult-raised and well-paid, so the idea of there being a traitor was...frustrating.

“I see,” he said neutrally.

The doctor furrowed his brow for a moment before his smile returned. “Well, as much as I would like to continue chatting, we really do need to get started.” He pulled open the door and three nurses came in. They immediately spread out, one going to Talia and two to Jason. They clearly knew what they were doing, and Talia had obviously been through it before, as she didn’t even try to fight back against the needle that was sunk into her arm. Jason wasn’t about to go down that easy. He shifted his hips slightly and, when one of the nurses went to swab his arm, swung them as hard as he could into the guy. The nurse grunted in surprise and took a half-step backwards but Jason couldn’t get enough leverage or movement to make any real impact and the guy was back at it a second later. Jason growled and thrashed around in his restraints, ignoring the painful friction that was rubbing his skin raw at the edge of the cuffs.

“Mr. al Ghul, please calm down! We are not going to hurt you!” the other nurse called from her place by the IV.

“Get the hell away from me!” Jason snarled. The male nurse passed off the swab and needle and went to pin his shoulders down. Jason lunged up from his half-reclined position and slammed the top of his head into the man’s face in a brutal headbutt. The nurse staggered backwards several steps, eyes dazed, before falling over, blood beginning to seep from his broken nose as he stared at the ceiling. Jason glared at the guy. If he had just a little more wiggle room the fucker would have been out for good.

“We need security, room B13,” the doctor almost yelled into a radio Jason hadn’t noticed in his pocket. He and the two nurses who were still standing watched him warily. Jason grinned at them, daring them to come closer.

Abn!” Talia barked. Jason froze. “Stop this right now.”

“What?!” he demanded, turning to look at her. And no, his voice did not crack.

“All you are doing is hurting yourself,” she said, gaze cold as ice. He opened his mouth to protest and she looked pointedly at his arms. He looked down. The right cuff had won the battle against his skin and blood was running down his arm. “You will lose more blood fighting them than you would if you allowed them enough to test.”

“Your mother is right,” Asshole chimed in. “We’re not trying to drain you dry or anything. We’re here to protect lives, not end them.”

Jason eyed Talia, worry twisting his gut. Had they gotten to Talia already? It had only been a few days! She knew how to fight brainwashing and these guys were clearly amateurs! They had gotten Deathstroke on their payroll, though. Who’s to say they didn’t outsource the brainwashing too?

“What did you fuckers do to her?” he demanded, whipping his head back around to face the doctor.

“We didn’t do anything to her, Mr. al Ghul.” The guy looked tired. Well fuck that, if anyone had the right to be tired of this shit it was him! And Talia, but she clearly wasn’t in her right mind.

“She’d never just stop fighting,” he snarled.

“As I told you, most people come around once they realize our goals are worthy ones.”

“What, so this is a whole ‘ends justify the means’ thing?” Keep them talking, just keep them distracted long enough for him to figure something out.

“The discomfort of a few for the bettering of the many, Jason,” Talia interjected. “A similar philosophy to that of my father.”

He didn’t like this. He really, really didn’t like this. He had to get a message out somehow. If they managed to brainwash him too who knew what they’d do? They might find out about the kids!

Jason’s resolve hardened. No. No way would these bastards ever get their hands on Damian and Mara. He would die before he gave them away. Or kill. Preferably kill.

Two security guards burst in the room. Jason raised an eyebrow. It seriously took them this long to get here? If he had actually been able to escape his restraints he would have been long gone and everyone in the room dead by now!

The doctor held up a hand to stop them tackling anyone. “Jason? Are you going to cooperate or do they need to step in?” What happened to ‘Mr. al Ghul’, huh? Not that he liked being linked directly to Ra’s but the patronizing tone was infinitely worse.

“Do not fight them, Abn,” Talia ordered. Jason glanced at her and immediately wished he hadn’t. That was her ‘obey me immediately, no questions asked, if you want to live’ face. He shifted his arm and grimaced at the feel of blood pooling in the restraint, running down his wrist. Well, good to know it wasn’t everything-proof. He looked at the guards, then at the doctor and nurses, then back at Talia. His head hit the bed with a thunk.

“Fucking fine! But you gotta get the blood outta this,” he jerked his right elbow to demonstrate, “or I’m really gonna lose it.”

“We can clean that up as soon as we have our samples, Jason. Thank you.”

Jason stared resolutely at the ceiling, pretending he wasn’t about to get stuck with needles and his blood sucked out to be experimented on. Actually, this bit was kind of familiar. Granted, he wasn’t usually tied up, but when he had just come out of the Pit Talia and her doctors had been taking tons of samples. It might even have gone before the Pit but his memories of those days were...sketchy at best. Fleeting impressions, flashes of faces and movement, all swallowed up by a dense, white fog. Thinking about it gave him a headache, just like thinking about everything else good before the Pit did. He glanced down as the nurse finally stepped away, putting a fifth vial of blood in a box and carrying the whole thing out of the room. The doctor stepped forward, pulling a tiny key out of his pocket. Jason’s eyes zeroed in on it, all of his senses maxed out, going over the next few seconds. He’d have to move fast before those security goons got involved. Asshole would turn the key, strike to the eyes, snatch the key, free other hand, take the rest of them down, release legs, grab Talia, and get the hell outta dodge. Good, turn the key, all he needed was one arm-

A warm feeling spread through his left arm and he blinked, looking over. The last nurse pulled a syringe out of the IV and hooked it back up to the normal...whatever they had him on.

“What’re you doing?” he asked. He meant it to come out demanding, unafraid, but a sudden tunneling of his vision made it...wobbly.

“Protocol, Jason,” the doctor said. “For the safety of our staff you have to be sedated if the restraints come off.”

The spark of green fury was overwhelmed by soft black clouds. “Fucker,” Jason sighed. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore but the rest of him felt like he was floating. He watched, detached, as the restraint was unlocked. There was a small part of him that was yelling and waving its arms around, an annoying prickle at the base of his skull. It wanted him to sit up and pay attention. He was supposed to be doing something. Jason blinked slowly. Keeping his eyes open all the way seemed too hard so he settled for halfway, peering through his eyelashes. He shouldn’t feel this relaxed. It wasn’t normal. The last time he had felt this way -- warm, half-asleep, not worried about anything -- he had been...thirteen? They had been out later than usual because of a fire and he had curled up in the Batmobile and let the purring of the engine and the steady flashing of the lights they passed lull him into a doze.

Jason stared up at the ceiling. He had been so tiny. Bruce had just scooped him up and carried him up to his room. Strong arms and a warm chest, a soft kiss on the top of his head…. The black clouds pulsed suddenly with green and Jason winced. The clouds won, though, and he was back to floating. People were moving around, he could see that. His arm was being put back in the white restraint. Later he would curse himself for letting the opportunity slip by him, for not putting up even a token resistance, but for now he floated peacefully on the black clouds, slowly sinking further, a deep voice murmuring, “Goodnight, Jay-lad,” in the dark.

Chapter Text

“You!”

Leslie Thompkins started, turning from where she had been talking to Bruce. “You,” she echoed, staring at the small girl before her.

Bruce looked back and forth between them. “You’ve met?”

“A few weeks ago.” Leslie looked up at Bruce, eyes sharp. “When she was carried to my clinic dying of blood loss.”

Bruce’s eyes widened and he snapped his gaze back down to the girl. “What?”

The girl shifted. “We informed you of the events that occurred when I attempted to return to the League, that I was injured and required emergency surgery.”

Bruce grimace. “I assumed Talia wouldn’t allow you to be taken anywhere.”

“Her injuries were far too extensive for anyone to treat at home,” Leslie said. “Much longer and it might have been too late. You were lucky your friend knew where to take you,” she told the girl.

“Her friend?”

Leslie bit down on her automatic description. “Tall young man in a leather jacket. Burst in the clinic yelling my name and carrying her. Nearly gave me a heart attack. Helped me with the surgery. Is he here too?” She looked around the Cave, half-expecting the man to appear out of nowhere.

“Not anymore,” Bruce grumbled. She raised an eyebrow.

“Oh?”

“He is rescuing my aunt,” the girl said.

Leslie looked at her again. Likely the woman who had swept into her clinic like she owned the place and brushed past her protests that the girl shouldn’t be moved. She had looked oddly familiar too, but Leslie had brushed it off as too much coffee and not enough sleep. “I see. You’ve been doing well for yourself? Not having any trouble moving? No pain?”

The girl shook her head. “I was healed weeks ago.”

Leslie blinked. “That’s not possible. With the extent of your injuries, you should only have been getting your full range of motion back recently.”

The girl shrugged. “We heal quickly.”

Leslie gave Bruce a look. He held up his hands. “There’s been no sign of an injury in the time she’s been with us.” He paused and she recognized his expression. He was deciding how much to tell her. “Did you notice anything...odd about the young man that brought her in?”

Leslie narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps. Was there anything odd to notice?” There was no way she was going to be the one to say it, in the likely case she was wrong. It was too ludicrous.

Bruce narrowed his eyes right back. “Yes,” he finally said. Leslie blinked. She hadn’t expected it to be that easy. That wasn't like Bruce. She looked at him closer, noting the bags beneath his eyes -- even more prominent than usual -- and the way he held himself. He was worried about something, enough that he couldn’t hide it.

“Brue.” She put a hand on his shoulder, shoving down impossible ideas. “What’s wrong?”

Bruce took a deep breath. “It’s Jason.”

And Leslie’s world fell apart.

***

“It’s not possible,” Leslie murmured. She had been saying similar things for the past twenty minutes. Alfred nudged a cup of tea into her hands and she gripped it automatically, staring into space. Alfred fetched his own cup and sat across from her. “Alfred,” she said, focusing her eyes to look at him. “How is this possible?”

Alfred sighed, stirring his tea. “I’m afraid we do not know.”

“Not know!”

“We know a few things. Jason woke in his coffin and climbed out. He was braindead, found by Talia al Ghul, and eventually placed in a Lazarus Pit.”

“Bruce has mentioned those a few times,” Leslie said, staring into her tea. “I thought they came with...side effects?”

Alfred took a sip of his tea, giving himself a moment of compose himself and construct an answer. “They do. Jason has...not been himself.”

Leslie gave a slightly hysterical laugh. “Of course he’s not himself! The boy was killed and then brought back to life and then taken by a death-cult -- it was that League that took him, yes?” Alfred nodded. Leslie put her cup down and buried her face in her hands. “He’s so big now. He shouldn’t be, the malnutrition should have changed that.”

“The Lazarus Pits restore the user to peak health,” Alfred explained. “It is why he has no lingering damage from his….” He couldn’t say it.

“None? At all?” Leslie looked intrigued. Alfred wished he could be upset at her curiosity, but he would be lying if he said that he hadn’t wondered similar things, memories from years ago nagging him to get more information.

“None but the trauma,” he said.

“And the...children?”

Alfred’s mustache twitched. Now this, at least, was relatively happy news. “It seems Bruce was not as careful in all of his dalliances as he should have been.”

Leslie’s eyes widened. “No.”

“Oh yes.” Alfred sipped his tea. “Not both of them. Mara is his niece. Damian, however…. Well, one glimpse of him and you can see it. Spitting image of Bruce at that age.”

“Good Lord.”

“Indeed.”

Both of them looked up as Bruce came into the kitchen. He looked unusually self-conscious. “Leslie,” he nodded at her. “I’d like to introduce you to Damian.” He glanced at the hallway and gestured for whoever was outside to come in. The two children entered, backs straight and expressions blank. Alfred’s chest gave a pang. They were always marching or striding, slipping through shadows or edging around corners. Never running or barging, slamming doors or skidding on a freshly-polished floor. Alfred never thought he would be wishing for such chaos, but the way Damian and Mara moved was just unnatural. It recalled his M16 days, the way his teammates would jump at shadows, heads constantly on a swivel. But these were not battle-hard veterans. They were children, had not even seen their first decade yet. Alfred’s hands tightened around his tea. For all of Jason’s love for Talia, despite the stories he had been told of kindness and aid, he could not forgive the woman. She had kept Jason from them, had allowed Damian to be raised as a weapon instead of a child.

“Doctor Thompkins,” Damian said. “Mara tells me you were the one who saved her life. You have my thanks.”

Leslie blinked at the formality. “...Just doing my job.”

“Still. If she had died, Jason would have been distraught.”

“You’re welcome.” Ah, Leslie, always so quick to aid another, always so slow to accept the gratitude she deserved. “How long have you been at the Manor?”

“Nearly two weeks,” Damian said, entirely unaware of Bruce flinching behind him. Leslie slowly looked at Bruce.

“Two weeks, hm?”

Alfred hid his amusement in his tea cup as Damian continued, completely oblivious to the stare-off happening above his head. “Yes. Akhi left a few days ago. He will be calling tonight.”

“Well I’d love to speak with him,” she said. Bruce smiled weakly.

Once Leslie was satisfied that Bruce had been stared into submission, she drained her tea and clapped her hands together. “Right. Well, I’m here for a reason, might as well get down to it.”

“Get down to what?” Damian asked. Mara was hovering at his side and slightly behind him, a position she had been taking up less and less as the days went by. Alfred hoped it was a result of Leslie being there and not because she thought they would harm her without Jason to act as a buffer.

“I’m here to give you both checkups, make sure everything is working like it should be.”

Their stiffening did not go unnoticed by anyone in the room. “That is unnecessary,” Damian said. “We are in perfect health.”

“That’s why you have a black eye, hm? When did that happen, two, three days ago?”

“Last night.”

Leslie paused. She looked up at Bruce. “Really?”

Bruce shrugged. “Jason has accelerated healing as well. We think it’s from the Pit.”

She hummed thoughtfully. “I know you said you heal fast, but I didn’t think you meant that fast.” She put her hands on her hips. “Still, I need to check you over. Have you had any of your shots?”

“Our bodies have been conditioned to withstand illness,” Damian said. Alfred’s lips pursed into a straight line.

Leslie frowned. “That is not an answer.”

“It is the one I have to give.”

“Perhaps,” Alfred said, “it would be better to put this matter on hold until their mother returns.”

Leslie tapped her fingers on her crossed arm thoughtfully. “Alright. But I still need to give you both a look over, especially you,” she told Mara.

“Do we need to go downstairs?”

“No, I have my bag.” She grabbed it from where it sat beside her chair. “We can do it up here.”

Mara nodded and pulled her shirt off. Leslie squawked in surprise. Bruce flinched. Alfred’s eyes widened. It wasn’t like they were shy about their bodies here -- it was quite impossible to be so when they were getting stitched up at least once a month -- but cutting a uniform off of someone while they were bleeding was quite different than Mara just pulling her clothes off in the kitchen.

Both children stared at them. “What?” Mara asked.

“Is something wrong?” Damian turned to scrutinize Mara. “She seems fine.”

Bruce reached out and snagged Damian by the back of his shirt, pulling him away from Mara. Leslie cleared her throat loudly and ushered Mara towards the door. “Let’s go in the other room, hm?”

Alfred raised a significant eyebrow at Bruce, who sighed. They had had similar problems with Cassandra; though the fact that Mara was only eight where Cassandra had been sixteen meant it was not quite as pressing a matter. Alfred wasn’t going to take on the responsibility of explaining modesty. Bruce had fumbled through an explanation once, he could do it again.

Tim shuffled through the door still half-in his school uniform -- Alfred sighed at the sight of the blazer shoved into his backpack and the sleeves pushed up to the elbow -- eyes trained on his phone and thumbs darting. Alfred was glad he had gotten home safely; Gotham public transportation was not the best. He would have picked the boy up but Bruce had asked him to stay for Leslie’s visit and Tim had assured him it wasn’t a problem. “Ah, Master Tim.” The boy looked up. The dark circles under his eyes were still prominent but had been fading slightly since Bruce had started enforcing the rules on sleep and caffeine.

“Hey Al,” Tim said, gaze darting back to his phone. He typed something and then shoved the device in his pocket. The teenager glanced at Damian, who attempting to interrogate Bruce, and Bruce, who looked vaguely panicked. “What happened?”

“Dr. Thompkins is here to give Master Damian and Miss Mara a checkup.”

“Okaaay...what’s wrong with Mara?”

“Nothing. Miss Mara merely startled us when she began undressing for her appointment.”

Tim blinked. “Wha- oh.” His nose scrunched. “They do that too?”

Alfred tilted his head in a nod. Tim pinched his nose. Alfred wasn’t surprised, it was Tim that had been subject to Cassandra’s...lack of inhibitions the first time.

“What is with assassins and not teaching their frikin’ kids about boundaries?”

“What are you blathering about, Drake?” Damian demanded.

Tim looked over at him. “It’s really weird that you guys just go pulling your clothes off anywhere.” His voice was tight. Alfred had noticed the strain between the boys and usually tried to keep them apart while giving Bruce meaningful looks. He gave Bruce one now.

“You know nothing, Drake!”

“Boys,” Bruce rumbled. Alfred, his back safely to the kitchen as he washed the teacups, rolled his eyes to heaven.

“What?! It is!”

“They are from a different culture.”

“A more refined one than yours, Drake.”

“Oh yeah, real refined -”

“Tim. Damian. Enough.”

Tim huffed. “Whatever.” He turned away from them and shuffled over to the coffee maker. It had been a few weeks since Leslie had forced them to listen to a rant about the dangerous side-effects of too much caffeine and, to Tim’s horror, Bruce had actually listened to her -- at least about Tim, his own coffee addiction was no one else’s business apparently -- and he was still bitter. Tim’s eyes widened. Wait. Shit. Leslie. He should be...anywhere but here when she came back.

He had just started casually heading for the doorway when Leslie and Mara came through it. “She’s in good shape,” the woman announced. “Healing really spectacularly from that stab.” Tim tried to melt into the wallpaper. “Ah, Timothy. Just the person I wanted to see.” She looked at Alfred. “How are his symptoms?”

“The headaches have stopped,” Alfred, the traitor, began, “his energy has started returning to normal levels, and the anxiety has lessened a good amount.”

“Excellent.” Oh no. Tim knew exactly what they were going to say. He tried to sidle towards the door but Leslie had quick reflexes and a strong grip. “Then I think it’s time we cut back another cup.” She plucked the mug from his grasp.

“No!” Tim protested. Bruce was nodding. “Bruce!”

The man raised an eyebrow. “Four cups is the maximum healthy amount for an adult, Tim.”

He knew that. He just didn’t care. “I need it.”

“And that is precisely why you can’t have it,” Leslie said, dumping his mug in the sink. “No one your age should be dependent on a stimulant.” Tim scowled. He could bring up the fact he had started drinking coffee at the ripe old age of nine. His nanny had let him have a sip one time, when his parents were supposed to be getting in late and he wanted to wait up for them. He could mention how he googled how to work the coffee machine after that, how it made his nightly following of Batman and Robin easier. He could mention that his parents hadn’t cared even when they were home -- his dad had made jokes about how he was a ‘big boy’ while his mother didn’t even look up -- and that at this point he was better adapted to working with it than without. But that would just get him pitying looks and Bruce would probably want to have another talk about how just because his parents had done it didn’t mean it was right and blah blah blah.

Tim scowled and shoved his hands in his pockets. Damian sneered at him but was cut off by Leslie calling, “Damian, your turn!” Tim only noticed it because he was sneering right back, but for a split second the brat’s eyebrows scrunched in and his mouth tightened. If it were anyone other than the brat, he might have called it fear. Tim’s eyes narrowed.

Damian left with Leslie and silence fell over the kitchen. Alfred was putting cups away and Bruce was clearly lost in his own thoughts. Tim’s eyes trailed over to Mara. She was standing like a statue, staring into space. He hadn’t really interacted with her much. She would glare at him and he would glare back, but she didn’t antagonize him like Damian did. She didn’t talk much at all. Tim tilted his head slightly. Of the two of them, Mara would probably be the most forthcoming. Or at least not slit his throat for talking to her. Hopefully.

“Hey Mara,” he said. The girl’s head snapped up and she eyed him. When she didn’t reply, Tim cleared his throat. “Um. Can I- ...why do you hate me?” he blurted out.

Mara’s flat gaze didn’t waver. “Mudarris hates you.”

“Yeah but. Neither of you even know me. How can you hate me?”

Mara seemed to be considering the matter. “You hurt him,” she said slowly. “Whenever he sees you. You cannot see, perhaps. You do not know him either.”

Tim felt like the breath had been knocked out of him. He gritted his teeth. He wouldn’t let her make him feel guilty. He didn’t do anything. “I haven’t done anything to him.”

Mara just shrugged.

Tim left. He heard Bruce say, “Tim?” and the click of his shoes but didn’t stop. He heard footsteps ahead of him and slid into a closet just as Damian and Leslie rounded the corner. He didn’t breathe as the three pairs of feet came to a halt outside of the closet.

“Is everything alright?” Bruce asked, and Tim let the tendril of pain from being so quickly forgotten wrap around his heart. Just this once, he’d let himself feel it, even though he would rather be angry.

“Everything seems to be in order,” Leslie’s voice said. There wasn’t anything obviously different or wrong in her words or tone, but...something made Tim’s ears prick and his eyes narrow.

It seemed like Bruce picked up on it too because he said, “Damian, why don’t you go see what Mara’s up to?”

“Yes, Father.” Damian’s light, barely audible footsteps pattered away. Tim didn’t press his ear to the door -- talk about an indefensible position -- but he did lean in a bit closer.

“What’s wrong?”

“Those children are covered in scars, Bruce,” Leslie hissed. Tim held his breath to better hear their low voices.

Bruce was silent. “I had seen a few,” he finally said. “On their arms.”

“Those are just the tip of the iceberg. And you know better than me how quickly they heal. If Damian’s black eye is that far along in just a few hours…”

“They must have been deep,” Bruce finished.

“Or not cared for properly. Mara has more than Damian. Neither of them would tell me where they came from.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“Not to mention the way they acted when I was examining them just screamed of past abuse.”

“How so?”

“Mara was stiff as a board the whole time, like she expected me to hurt her. Damian wasn’t but he...it was almost like he was disassociating.”

“I see.” Bruce’s voice was dark and angry, more Batman than anything else. Tim chewed on his lip. He shouldn’t have heard this, it wasn’t for his ears. But what was he supposed to have done, walked out of the closet? Yeah right.

He didn’t move until Bruce and Leslie had been gone for a few minutes. He eased the closet open. The hallway was clear. He still kept near the wall until he reached the stairs. The library was empty for once -- it seemed like the kids or Jason were in here all the time -- and he rounded the small spiral staircase, making for the back corner. It was a small, out-of-the-way spot, sandwiched between a wall and one of the stacks: a window seat with colorful cushions and heavy drapes that could be pulled across to block out the world. Tim just sat for a second, not even staring out the window. He ran a finger along a long, thin white line that ran down the inside of his forearm, the three clustered ones across the top by his elbow. Those were the ones that spelled the end of his short-sleeve days, unless he wore makeup to cover them up. Tim sat back and let his head fall against the wall with a quiet thunk.

He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there before a floorboard creaked. He sat up, quickly swiping at his eyes with the back of his wrist. “Tim?” a quiet voice called.

Dick.

Tim sunk back against the wall. He wasn’t there. He stared out the window. It was nice out today, he should get his camera and see what he could shoot. He had fallen a bit out of practice, ever since he became Robin. The curtain’s loops scraped against the pole as it was pulled open. Was there no privacy in this house? Tim eyed the shadows coming from the trees, the way the light was dancing on the fresh leaves.

“Are you okay?”

He rolled his eyes to heaven and shrugged off his brother’s hand. “‘m fine.”

Dick made a skeptical noise. Tim slid past him and made for the exit. “Tim, hang on-”

“Fuck off,” he bit out.

Dick scowled. “Okay, now I know something’s definitely up.” Tim tried to ignore the dick hounding his steps. They were in the hallway now, heading for his room. “Come on, man, you can talk to me.”

Tim turned to face him. “Go talk to Damian.” He slammed the door.

Tim stood there for a second, until Dick’s footsteps finally moved away. He pounded the heel of his hand into his forehead. ‘Go talk to Damian’, really?? Way to be childish. No one was going to take him seriously if he kept that up. Tim huffed angrily and grabbed his camera case from the top of his closet. He slung it over his shoulder and moved to the window. No way was he risking running into Dick now. He crouched on the roof and slid the window shut behind him, heading for the patio. Bruce had gotten a roof installed for a bit of shade when Dick was younger, and it was only a short drop from his level to the slats.

Just like old times, he thought, huffing a sardonic laugh. This was as natural as breathing to him and, just like so many nights in his childhood, no one noticed as he took off into the woods. Hell, maybe he’d go next door, really get the nostalgia flowing. A part of him was crying that he was wrong, Bruce was just overwhelmed, he still cared, he was just helping him with his homework the other day- His mother’s cool voice cut off that train of thought, asking if he was being sure to keep his grades up, reminding him that there was no place in their legacy for failures. Tim came to a halt, scrabbling for his camera with shaking fingers. He turned it on, checked the lens, and started stalking around, looking for a subject. A small cluster of mushrooms growing from a log caught his eye and he lay on his stomach to get a good angle, entirely forgetting about the school uniform he was still wearing. Really, Timothy, your little pictures are of no use to your future. You are not going to be a photographer, after all. Tim’s hands tightened around the camera and he kicked out at the log, spores and dust and little white chunks flying. It’s not the same, he told himself. It’s not the same. He was the one that chose to spend more time training for Robin, Bruce never asked him to give up his hobbies. At least not directly. Tim eyed a bird’s next sitting about ten feet off the ground.

Tim was finally forced to admit that his plan wasn’t working half an hour later. The ants hadn’t stopped crawling over his skin and his chest still felt too tight, like he couldn’t get in a proper breath. He pulled out his phone.

“Hey Steph, you free?”

Chapter Text

Steph prattled idly as Tim crouched and lay and wedged himself in odd places to get the ‘perfect shot’. She didn’t know what it was he saw in the random signs and buildings and cracks in the ground, but his shoulders had slowly been relaxing, his jaw loosening, and he began quirking a little smile at her jokes. He didn’t talk back, but she didn’t mind. Sometimes it was too hard to talk, he had whispered to her one night after patrol, head resting on her shoulder as they sat on the roof of a skyscraper; but the silence was too loud. She understood the crushing weight of silence, even if she found relief in replacing the silence with words, any words that came into her head. If Tim had trouble talking, she had trouble shutting up. But it worked out, because Tim never yelled at her to shut up or gave her dirty looks or minded when she had to backtrack through a story and add in something she had forgotten. And she didn’t mind that he looked like he wasn’t listening, because he was. It was in the tilt of his head just a hair towards her, the way he paused to hear a punchline before pressing the shutter, the gentle shoulder bump he gave her as he led the way to their next location. And even as the hours ticked by and they wandered all over the city, Steph kept chattering and Tim even started humming in reply and laughing quietly when she made a bad pun.

Tim was clambering awkwardly up a fire escape to photograph some graffiti -- he said he had to be higher up to catch the most of the waning light -- when Steph’s phone rang. “Y’ello? Uhuh. Really? Sweet! Can I bring a buddy of mine? Yeah, he’s totally cool! Awesome, seeya later.” She grinned up at Tim. He was looking down at her, eyebrow raised. “Are you good, Timmy?”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, climbing back down. “Thanks, Steph.” He packed his camera away and Steph’s grin widened.

“No prob.” She slung her arm around his shoulders. “You wanna keep the fun going?”

His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

Steph wiggled her phone back and forth in front on his face, an address glowing on the screen. “Some of my old public school buddies are havin’ a party. You feel up to it?”

Tim was clearly torn. “Um. I mean…” He pulled out his phone before remembering he had shut it off, too many calls and texts from Dick marring the peace he had been struggling for. He looked at it helplessly. Steph tilted her head to one side.

“Hey. Tim.” She waited until he met her eyes. “You don’t hafta tell me what, but something happened. With Bruce, right?”

Tim fidgeted. “It’s just...with Damian and Mara and Jason…” He trailed off but Steph knew where he was going with it. Bruce had a bad habit of becoming hyper-focused. It meant he ignored other things that he shouldn’t.

“So,” she continued, “why not blow him off for once? Let him see how it feels! Trust me, beating your dad at his own game is the best.” Her grin faltered. “Not that...Bruce is anything like my dad, I just-”

She cut off as Tim met her eyes, a glint of something dangerous passing between them. “Fuck it. Let’s go.”

“Hell yeah!” Steph yelled, wheeling the both of them around with the arm she still had looped over his shoulders. “You’re gonna learn to party like a real Gothamite!”

***

Where is he?”

“I’m working on it, Bruce,” Barbara said. Her tone was cool and Bruce regretted snapping at her. “They were walking around for a long time. Lots of cameras to track.” She paused. “Don’t you have trackers?”

“Of course I do,” he growled. “He turned them off.” Tim shouldn’t even know about all the trackers, much less how to disable them. Bruce ran a hand through his hair.

“I’m sure they’re fine, they’re just taking pictures.”

“They’re wandering around Gotham and it’s getting dark!”

“Oh no, Gotham at night, I’m sure neither of them have ever experienced that before.”

Bruce sucked in a breath through his nose and let it out slowly through his mouth to avoid yelling that it wasn’t the same and she knew that. Barbara did know that and she had said it anyway, that meant she was trying to tell him something. Maybe that he was being just a bit paranoid. The clock slid open, the quiet click of gears catching his ear and he turned to see who was. Mara, with no Damian behind her. Bruce wondered where the boy was. It occurred to him that it might not be a good thing to always think of the children as a set. It would probably have the same effect as his early mistakes of treating Jason like Dick. He grimaced at the memory. Thank God Alfred and Jason himself had set him straight. Every one of his kids was different and special in their own way and while that made his job a hell of a lot harder, it also made it more rewarding.

“Hello, Mara,” he said. The girl nodded at him. She headed over towards the mats but paused.

“Have you heard anything from...Jason?”

Bruce had noticed that she had reverted back to calling Jason ‘Mudarris’. He didn’t know why, but it wasn’t a good sign. “I’m afraid not. But he’ll be calling in,” he glanced at the clock, “about an hour.”

She nodded and turned back to the mats. He watched her, marveling at her skill at such a young age. If he was also trying to distract himself from the urge to put on the suit and go find Tim right now, that was no one’s business but his own. The girl overreached on one move and had to lean forward out of her guard to retain her balance. Bruce opened his mouth to call a suggestion when he saw her flinch, shoulders hunched and body tight as a wire. He frowned, remaining silent. It took a second, but Mara straightened out and clenched her fists once before redoing the sequence. Bruce’s heart sank as he remembered their conversation a few days ago. He remembered his own training with Shīfù Sikong, the sharp crack of a cane every time he so much as twitched wrong. It had been effective, but he would never wish it on anyone. Despite how much he despised the subject matter, Bruce had to admit that Jason was a good teacher.  He was more calm and patient that Bruce had ever seen him when he was showing the children a new move. It was almost unnatural.

All the same, Bruce hesitated to say anything. One good teacher could not erase the abuse of many. He turned back to the computer, pulling up a cold case to distract himself from the minutes ticking by in the corner of the screen. Tim was responsible; if any of his children had to be out with friends right now, he was probably the best choice. Tim would be fine.

***

Tim stared down at the jello shot in his hand. “This is a fantastic way to get poisoned,” he said.

Steph rolled her eyes, punching his shoulder. “Come on, Timmy, I helped make them!”

“You helped make some of them. Then you got bored and joined a dance circle.”

“And was it awesome? Yes.”

“This is how people become statistics.”

Steph groaned. “Have you ever been to a party before?”

“It’s not really...my thing.” Alcohol dulled your senses. His brain was his greatest asset, he couldn’t afford to lose it.

“Good grief, child.”

“You’re like. Barely older than me.”

“Ten months, brat! Respect your elders and take the shot!”

“Oh my God.” This was peer pressure. Didn’t they all get warned about this in school or something? His parents weren’t really around enough to care what he did. Tim scowled at the reminder. He squeezed his eyes shut and knocked back the jello cup. Steph whooped with excitement. Tim blinked and coughed slightly at the burn, which was traveling down his throat to sit in his stomach. “Wow.”

“Baby’s first alcohol!” Steph yelled, leaning in to take a selfie. Tim pushed her away.

“I’ve had alcohol before.”

“That fancy champagne shit doesn’t count.”

Tim rolled his eyes but didn’t protest when Steph grabbed two solo cups from the kitchen counter. He took a sip and his eyes immediately started watering. He bent over, coughing. “What the hell is that?!”

“Moonshine. I heard someone even went and got the good stuff from Park Row. It’s supposed to be strong enough to strip paint!”

“Oh yeah,” he wheezed. “Definitely.”

Steph took a swig and her eyes bugged out slightly. “Okay, note to self, Park Row doesn’t play around.”

“You’re just learning that now?” Tim asked, blinking a couple of times. He had been getting a headache from the pounding music but it had disappeared now. Though his burning throat might make up for it.

Steph smirked at him. “You wanna dance, Boy Blunder?”

Tim squinted at her. “Unless you mean the waltz, I can’t really dance.”

“Oh please.” She grabbed his hand and dragged him forward, balancing her own cup precariously on the arm of the couch, which had been shoved as far back as possible to make a dance floor. “Just let your body do its thing!”

Tim hovered awkwardly as Steph closed her eyes and threw her hands in the air, swinging her hips and bouncing around to the music. He stared down at the cup in his hand. Is this what his normal would have been if he hadn’t been Robin? He had always been a little odd, kind of geeky, but he’d been okay at making friends, had been in a few clubs, before he quit them to focus on his night job. If Bruce had never taken him in, never adopted him, would he have been going to parties like this a lot? He looked back at Steph, who seemed to be extremely invested in out-shimmying a guy who was wearing so much eyeliner he kind of looked like a raccoon. He wasn’t sure he wanted this to be the kind of thing he did normally, but tonight…just this once…. He looked back at his drink. Not like he was going on patrol anyway. He shrugged and chugged the rest of the cup. He squinted, dashing the water from his eyes. The warmth in his stomach was moving to his limbs and he tossed the cup to the side, edging closer to Steph. She laughed when she saw him and grabbed his hands, pulling him into a wild, swinging, side-to-side motion. Tim laughed as the room blurred around him, the beat pounding through his feet in time with his heart.

***

Jason’s spine arched as far as the straps would allow, all the air in his lungs escaping in a silent scream. He tried to thrash around, to do something to stop the pain, but his arms were strapped down by his sides; his ankles, knees, even hips locked to the bed. Fuck, there was even a strap going across the back of his head. He could feel the needle shifting as it was pulled from his spine. His rigid muscles went limp when it was finally removed and he gasped in a desperate gulp of air. Sweat dripped down his nose and onto the floor and he closed his eyes, feeling tears beading on his eyelashes. You’ve had worse, he reminded himself, but there was something fundamentally different about torture and...whatever this was supposed to be. He’d had nails ripped out, hot irons pressed to the bottom of his feet, been cut in more ways than he could possibly remember, been beaten and blown up, but this…. Torture left marks, scars that he could count and come to terms with, that he could hold on to until it was his turn to hold the knife. He’d long ago learned to embrace his scars -- well...most of them -- seeing them as a map of his life, showing where he came from and how far he’d progressed. But this pushing and prodding and stabbing didn’t leave marks. They weren’t taking him apart. They were very carefully keeping him in good condition and that terrified him more than he liked to admit.

In the first two hours of tests he had fought as hard as he could. The Pit had come into play as he raged but it hadn’t made any difference; they had just taken note of elevated adrenaline and a drop in blood sugar and continued on their way. Now he was just...tired. Not so tired that he wouldn’t put up a cursory struggle, but he couldn’t muster the energy to panic anymore when hands wrapped around his thigh. Quiet talking behind him but the weird shrieky sighing in his head was louder and blocked out their words. Jason let his neck muscles release, head sagging down towards the ground. If he lost himself in the white noise, maybe this would be over.

A line of fire raced up his thigh.

Jason gritted his teeth but couldn’t stop the gasp when the hands moved, reaching, pushing, digging. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move and they were pulling him apart. A dark corner of his mind laughed. Well, you did want them to leave you some scars, didn’t you?

Another line of fire, deeper than the first, and the hands retreated. Jason clenched his fists convulsively. They would pay for this. How long would they last once it was them under the knife? He imagined their screams and sobs, begging for mercy that wouldn’t be coming. Another corner of his mind, the one that insisted on bullheaded optimism, cringed away from the idea. Jason’s shoulders bunched and he bucked hard when hands touched his thigh again. He had to get out of here. Too much time like this was trapping him in his head, leaving him at the mercy of his thoughts. That was never a good thing, not for him. A pinch, a pull...oh they were stitching him up. Maybe he wouldn’t get a scar after all. Jason growled and tried to jerk again. His skin under all the restraints was being rubbed raw but he didn’t care. He had to move, even if it was less than an inch.

You’re doing so well, Jason,” the doctor said in his obnoxious, patronizing voice. His feet moved to stand by Jason’s head. “We’re almost done.”

“Go to hell,” Jason snarled. He would send the man there himself. His skin prickled as the doctor rested a hand on the back of his neck.

“We’re good up here,” he said. It took Jason a moment to realize he was talking to the nurses. The doctor pressed down on the electrode stuck on the base of his skull. His fingers moved to the ones on his temples. “Just one more test, Jason, and you can go back to your room.”

Fuck. You.” He would have said more, but a hand was reaching down and shoving something into his mouth. He grit his teeth and tried to shake his head, but strong fingers dug into the pressure points at his jaw, forcing his mouth open. The rubber mouthguard -- he could make out the shape of it now -- was jammed between his teeth. Before Jason could spit it out, electricity was coursing through his brain, snapping his jaw shut against his will. The soft shrieking cut off and Jason felt oddly off-balance without the constant sound. He didn’t have time to think about it, though, because black was descending, not soft and gradual like the sedative but like a wave, crashing and dragging him under all at once.

***

Talia opened her eyes, letting the harsh white light gradually take over from the calming black of meditation. The door was open and Jason was being wheeled in on a gurney. He was strapped down, but less extensively than when he had been carted away. Talia’s eyes darted up to her son’s face. It was slack, his hair standing oddly up away from his head. Her gaze slid to the pink, circular burns on his temples. It took every ounce of self control not to lash out, to punish these fools for daring to harm her son. She inhaled slowly, counting to four before exhaling. Jason was being strapped back to his bed.

“Was he uncooperative?” she asked, once she was sure her voice was under control.

Doctor Moretti smiled and walked over to her. “Yes, but we managed. We collected enough samples to have a good start.”

Talia nodded at Jason. “Was the electrocution a punishment?”

The man looked startled. “Of course not! Some of the blood work pointed to electricity having an unusually strong affect. We needed to test it.”

Talia hummed. “The burns?”

The doctor grimaced. “There was an incident. I’m afraid I can’t share anything more. It will not happen again.” Talia would offer herself up to her father without a fight if the burns were an accident.

“I trust that the person responsible for the incident will no longer be involved in treating my son?” she asked icily.

“Of course not, Ms. al Ghul. We are very grateful for your cooperation in these matters.”

Talia nodded gracefully and the man retreated. Talia turned her attention back to Jason. The nurse hooked the iv back up to his arm and turned on the heart monitor before leaving them alone. Alone, but not safe. Talia didn’t do something as obvious as looking at the cameras, but the red lights glowed mockingly in her peripheral vision.

Jason's burns would heal, she knew, likely in two days if the glimpse she got was any indication. Was this a threat? Warning her to stay in line or watch Jason suffer unnecessarily? Or were the doctors testing the lengths of Jason’s healing? It could be either. It could be both. Either way, she didn’t like it. She had...helped enhanced people discover their limits in the past. It was not a pleasant process and sometimes resulted in death. She could make it easier, if she told them how the healing worked, if she was sure they wouldn’t push past or test her words. Who was she kidding, these were doctors preparing a clinical trial; everything would be tested. Perhaps she could offer a lower cut-off, one that wouldn’t bring Jason to his true limits but still be believable? Again, there was the chance the doctors would escalate. If they started from the very beginning -- testing gradually increasing cuts, burns, breaks -- it would give them more time to break out before the doctors started testing things that would keep Jason incapacitated for a significant portion of time or even damage him beyond repair. Her mind flashed with possibilities: surgery, amputation, infection. No matter what she told them, Jason would still be harmed.

Talia wasn’t sure why they limited themselves mostly to drawing blood with her, while subjecting Jason to who-knows-what. She didn’t like it. She hated seeing them dragging her son from the room, returning him hours later in obvious pain, unable to show anything other than cool compliance without risking the hint of trust the doctors put in her. If she managed to keep up the facade, they might ease up on the restraints they put her in. Her beloved might pull off one of his last-minute rescues, but she would not have survived as long as she did if she relied on others to save her.

“Oh my son,” she whispered. The red lights stared like the eyes of a hungry beast. “Why must you fight them?”

***

It was ten fifty-seven and the family were all gathered in the Cave, waiting for Jason’s check-in. Well, almost all the family. Tim and Steph were still missing and Bruce was already gearing up for the lecture they’d receive once they were found. Stephanie wasn’t really his, but she spent so much time at the Manor it was hard not to think of her that way. Bruce glanced at the clock. Two minutes. Leslie was standing with Alfred a few steps to the side so she could step forward and surprise Jason. And they wondered where Bruce got his dramatic streak from.

The clock hit eleven and everyone straightened slightly, eyes glued to the screen. Jason was meticulously on time with his calls, not wanting to miss even a second of seeing Damian and Mara.

The screen remained blank. Bruce frowned and checked the connection. No problems there. Maybe on Jason’s end?

They waited. And waited. Half an hour went by and with each passing minute the Cave grew tenser. Damian and Mara were stiff as boards, eyes shining with fear. Bruce made a decision and clicked a few keys. Jason has said he didn’t want Bruce calling but he would take the anger if it meant knowing his son was alright. The call disconnected. Bruce tapped his fingers on the desk. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t tell what.

“Did you get the days mixed up, perhaps?” Leslie asked, breaking the stiff silence.

“He calls every day.” Damian folded his arms. “Last night he said he would speak with us today.”

Bruce’s fingers picked up speed. Was something burning? He could smell smoke. He refused to turn around, but the piercing gaze of an empty costume bored into his back.

“Something probably came up. I bet he’ll call later,” Dick said. “You know how missions are.”

Bruce nodded slowly. It was past time for patrol to start and he shifted in his chair, trying to think. “Dick, take Cass and start patrolling,” he said. “I’ll stay here a bit longer, see if he calls.”

“Sure thing, B.” Dick gave a jaunty, two-fingered salute as he took a step back and turned on his heel, heading for the bikes. Cass patted Bruce’s shoulder before following.

Bruce swiveled his chair. “And if you see Tim,” he called, “tell him to get his butt back here!”

Dick laughed and Cass waved before peeling out with a screech of rubber on stone.

Bruce massaged his temples. Alfred laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure Master Jason has a good reason for putting off the call,” he said. “Let’s not assume the worst just yet.”

Assuming the worst was what kept people alive.

“Leslie,” the butler continued, turning, “it is far too late to head back to Gotham. Will you stay the night?”

Leslie tilted her head in thought. “Alright, but I’ll have to leave early.”

“Of course.” They walked towards the elevator, leaving Bruce with a blank screen and two small children. He looked at them. They stared back. Bruce contemplated working on cold cases again but...this was his son -- and...niece? They had never really worked out how Mara fit into the dynamic but there was nothing ordinary about the family anyway, what was one more unusual piece? -- he should be interacting with them. Quality time, he had heard, was important. Something to get their minds off of Jason.

“Damian, Mara,” he began cautiously. “Would you like to learn some gymnastics?” Jason had made it clear he was their teacher, but Bruce wasn’t sure what else to do. He was an alright teacher himself, or at least his kids didn’t seem to mind his style, and he wasn’t good at small talk. No matter their DNA, these children were practically strangers to him and he wanted to rectify that but he could not do that while sitting still. He needed something to do, something to focus on enough that the walls around his words became a little less solid, so the pressure of eyes fixed on him was a little less piercing.

Damian looked intrigued. “We have had some lessons on that in the past,” he said, and Bruce ached at the careful way he spoke, like Bruce was a bomb that could blow any moment.

“Great, we’ll have a foundation to work with.” Remembering the way Jason explained his techniques before practicing, he stood and led the way over to the gym. “Have you ever worked with a balance beam?”

“Not as such, but the concept is familiar.”

“Alright.” Bruce patted the beam that was almost taller than the children. “The goal is to be able to hold yourself up on small ledges. Sometimes the only choice you have to stop a fall or climb somewhere is something like this. It’s important to be comfortable.”

Damian nodded and pulled himself onto the beam. Bruce walked him through some exercises, not holding him up, but ready to catch him. Damian wobbled a little in a handstand, but managed to straighten himself out. Bruce smiled. “Would you like to try a dismount?” Damian nodded, face serious but eyes shining. Bruce’s smile widened as Damian managed to land a gainer. Sure he was in a crouch, fingers brushing the mat in a way no gymnastics coach would accept, but that didn’t matter in the field. Safe stances that can be easily moved out of were more important than flair. Even Nightwing knew that, though he danced dangerously close to the line sometimes. “Good job.” Damian grinned up at him. Bruce motioned for Mara to climb on and she moved quickly through the exercises, having seen Damian complete them all already. She landed the dismount and added a leg sweep for good measure, one hand poised where her knife belt would have been. “Nice work,” he said. She looked up at him, still guarded but less so than before. Bruce glanced at the uneven bars, then at the clock. It was twelve-thirty and Jason still hadn’t called. He frowned in thought.

“Master Bruce,” Alfred said, walking towards them, heels clicking rapidly. He was holding the landline. Bruce’s heart picked up. Alfred handed it over and he raised it to his ear.

“Hello?” His voice did not shake, he didn’t allow it.

“Mr. Wayne? This is Officer Tagen with the GCPD. We have your son Timothy in custody.”

Chapter Text

Steph listened to Tim’s footsteps cross the holding cell again and again. Tap tap tap swish, tap tap tap swish, tap tap tap. She groaned and threw one arm over her face, blocking out the bright lights. “Tim. Stop.”

The tapping halted. “What?” Ooh, he was pissed.

Steph pushed herself up, bracing her hands on the hard bench to glare at the boy. “Stop with the pacing before I break your legs.” Tim glared right back. Tap tap tap swish. Steph sighed and flopped back down. Ow. Right, migraine. “Tim, calm down.”

“Calm down? Calm down? Steph, look at us! We’re in jail.”

“For a misdemeanor.”

“Oh, alright, that’s fine then, as long as it’s just a misdemeanor.”

“You’re a billionaire, Tim. The fine’s not going to hurt you.” But it would hurt her. Shit.

Bruce is a billionaire, not me.”

“I’ve seen the size of your allowance. It could be a lot worse. I mean, look at this cell! We’re not even in with the other kids they nabbed. Perks of being a Wayne and Wayne-adjacent.”

Tim slumped down next to her. Finally. “The fine might not hurt but the record? This is going to be all over the news.” He buried his face in his hands, voice muffled. “Bruce is gonna kill me.”

Steph rolled her eyes. “This is what literally everyone expects from rich teens. You’ll be fine.”

“I’m supposed to be working right now. You know how B feels about skipping work.”

Steph peered up at him. “Bruce loves you, you idiot.” But he barely tolerated her. “Sure he’ll be pissed, but he’s not going to kick you out or anything.” She could probably kiss access to the Cave goodbye. “So chill.” Tim did not look reassured, which, rude. She braved the nausea and sat up again, leaning her head on his shoulder. He was picking at his left wrist, nails digging into the skin. She grabbed his hand and he blinked at her, startled, as if he hadn’t noticed what he was doing.

“Breathe. All kids do stuff like this at least once. Hell, remember the stories Babs told us about Dick and the- his college friends?” It was getting increasingly difficult to think; she should probably shut up before she spilled someone’s secret identity. How long had they been sitting here? An hour? Bruce had to be close by. Then Tim at least could go home.

Steph tapped Tim’s cheek to get his attention. “Bruce is gonna be here soon and you can go sleep it off, okay? Probably shouldn’t call me in the morning, though, we’re both going to be hungover as shit.”

Tim frowned at her. “What do you mean I can go sleep it off? You’re coming too!”

“My mom doesn’t get off the night shift until seven and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to pick up someone else’s minor from jail.”

Tim gaped like a fish, mouth moving but nothing coming out. “You-” he finally spluttered, “you can’t sit here alone for six hours!”

Steph was too tired to properly glare at him. “Not like I’m choosing to, Boy Blunder. Some of us have parents that can’t set their own hours.” God, her head was killing her.

She looked up at the sound of keys jangling. A cop opened the cell door. “Up and at ‘em kiddos.”

“Wait, both of us?” Come to think of it, Bruce did illegal things every night and he was rich, so maybe she shouldn’t be surprised.

“Yes.” The cop looked both tired and pissed so Steph jumped to her feet, dragging Tim up with her. She had to brace a hand on the wall to avoid falling right back over but collected herself and stumbled to the door. Tim was rubbing his temples and muttering to himself under his breath but she was too focused on not faceplanting to figure out what he was saying.

They made it to the lobby and Bruce rushed over to them. “Are you alright?” he asked, running his hands down Tim’s arms. “You’re not hurt, are you?” Tim shook his head, gaze fixed firmly on his shoes. Bruce’s worried frown turned into a real one. “Good.” Funny, his tone didn’t make it sound all that good. “Get your things, we have to get home.”

Tim’s face lit up when the officer behind the counter handed him his camera case. “Oh, there it is. I was afraid I’d lost it.” He slung it over his shoulder and turned back to where Bruce was waiting, arms crossed and keys dangling from one hand. Steph accepted her phone and wallet, shoving her keychain into her pocket. She used the second it took to stow her belongings to brace herself and straighten her shoulders. Head held high, she turned and walked to where Bruce and Tim were waiting. So what if her head was pounding and her stomach lurching like she was on a boat? She was Batgirl, she could handle this. And if Bruce banned her from the Cave and Oracle took away the suit? She’d just go back to being Spoiler. She’d done it before, she could do it again. Don’t think about how before you didn’t know what it was like to have a team, people to joke around with and play rooftop tag and know they’ll be there right away if you need help. Don’t think about how this is the closest you’ve had to a family in a while. Steph shook off the thought. It wasn’t fair to her mom; she’d been doing really good lately, had even made breakfast a few times this past week before rushing off to work.

Steph risked a peek up at Bruce. He was smiling and thanking the officers, but the expression was visibly strained. She wasn’t sure if it was on purpose -- he had been gradually scaling back his Brucie act -- or if he was really that bothered, but neither were great for her. Tim was playing with the zipper on his case, the sound grating against her ears. Steph shoved down the urge to smack it out of his hands. Her mom was going to be pissed, there was no way she wouldn’t find out about this, even if Bruce didn’t tell her. Like Tim said, the story of responsible little Timmy partying and getting arrested was going to be all over the news and her mom knew she was friends with him. Even if no one else recognized her, her mom would ask questions and ever since she started really trying, Steph felt terrible about lying to her. Sneaking out every night to patrol was bad enough, she didn’t even have a good excuse for not being honest about this. Aside from not wanting to get grounded, that is.

A large hand landed on her shoulder and she actually squeaked. Get it together Batgirl! Pretend you’ve been drugged by a villain or something! Bruce pushed her and Tim forward and Steph stared resolutely ahead, ignoring her burning ears. She shoved open the door and was immediately blinded by flashing lights. Her headache zoomed from a seven to a thirteen and she barely resisted the urge to cover her ears. Tim bodily flinched back from the wave of shouted questions and Bruce’s grip on her shoulder tightened. He steered them past the crowd and to the car waiting by the curb. A few cops held back the tide of reporters and Steph felt like throwing up. She had expected there to be a hubbub -- she had seen the mass of reporters outside the manor -- but this was ridiculous. She was totally screwed. She wouldn’t be surprised if Tim didn’t want anything to do with her after this. She didn’t know why he had called her. All she did was make things worse.

The door closed behind Tim and the sounds cut off, though the camera flashes still came through the window. Steph copied Tim and buckled in, focusing on the feel of leather beneath her fingers as she trailed them on the seat. Bruce didn’t say anything, just got in the driver’s seat and pulled away from the curb. Steph slumped back in her seat, vision going wavy. Of course he wasn’t going to say anything yet. Bruce was the kind of guy who wanted to stare you directly in the eye while he chewed you out. She wasn’t sure she could even focus her eyes right now, so that was something to look forward to. But for now, they had a twenty minute drive -- if Bruce followed traffic laws for once -- her seat was heated, and the rumbling of the engine was soothing rather than brain-rattling. Steph tilted her head back and closed her eyes. Might as well enjoy the perks of being a Wayne-adjacent while it lasted.

***

Damian stared hard into his cup of tea, breathing in the calming scent and forcing himself to sit tall and still, as he had been taught. Fidgeting was for peasants and occasionally for Jason but certainly not for the Heir to the Demon. Damian paused mid-sip, the hot tea suddenly feeling like ice in his veins. Because he was no long Heir to the Demon, was he? Everything he had been working towards since the day of his conception was vanished to the wind, as if it had never been. He knew this, of course, but every time he was reminded it still made him pause. It was foolish. He may be unable to take his rightful place, but his training did not lose all meaning because of that. If his old teachers could see him be so pathetically thrown off by something he chose freely, they would punish him harshly. And he would deserve it. Damian put his cup down silently, centering it on the saucer. Only when it was in the exact middle, handle pointed just so, did he look up. Mara was frowning at the cards in her hand, shuffling them back and forth before choosing one to put down. Pennyworth selected a card from the pile on the table and laid down three face up. Mara grimaced and drew her own card.

Damian looked at their tea cups. The handles were all wrong, and Mara’s wasn’t even in the middle of her saucer! His fingers itched to fix it, but that would draw their attention to him, and he had been doing a very good job of blending in with the upholstery. He looked at the plate of biscuits on the table and leaned forward to take one. They were different than the ones back ho- at the League. His favorite biscuit -- “It’s called a cookie, Damian. A cookie." -- was fig ma'amoul, which relied mostly on the fig for its sweet flavor. These chocolate chip were sweet in a very different way. It was not unpleasant, but the first time he had one he almost spat it out in surprise. Pennyworth had looked...startled. Jason had laughed and grabbed another, telling the man not to worry, that Damian was simply used to natural sugars and he was just surprised.

Damian bit into the...cookie...and tried to keep his brow from furrowing. Why did his thoughts constantly turn to Jason? It was distracting and entirely unhelpful. He glanced over at the other occupants of the room. Pennyworth discarded his final card with a flourish and Mara scowled, letting her hand fall to the table. It was not her real scowl though, and Damian wondered why she was alright with losing. Perhaps it was like the chess games he had played with Mother occasionally, when his rare days off corresponded with her even rarer ones. Whether it was early morning or late at night or a snatched moment during lunch hour, he loved sitting across from her, watching as she allowed her brow to furrow as she contemplated her next move, the way the candles gleamed against the painted wood and shining ivory pieces. It had been left behind in their escape, and he found himself wishing they had been able to bring it.

Headlights flashed over the large, front-facing windows and Damian was jumping to his feet before he even thought about it. He did not run, he just...moved swiftly to the window and peered out. “It is Father.”

Pennyworth rose to his feet gracefully. “No doubt Master Bruce will want the study,” he said, gathering up the tea tray as Mara put away the cards. “We had best relocate.” He smiled at Mara. “Well played, Miss Mara.”

Mara actually blushed, which was preposterous. She had been telling Jason that he was planning on staying, but what would Jason have to say about this?

And his thoughts were back to Jason. Damian paused, glancing at the grandfather clock that led to the Cave. They had set up in here so they wouldn’t waste any time if Pennyworth’s phone alerted an incoming call. He shook his head and huffed. If Jason hadn’t called yet, almost three hours since the appointed time, he probably wouldn’t tonight. Damian straightened his spine and followed the butler and his cousin from the room.

The door to the garage was in the kitchen, and so their group was met with the sight of Drake and Brown shuffling through the door, followed by Father, who was wearing a face like thunder. Damian stiffened automatically, reminding himself that Father did not like being bowed to, even if it was polite, and stepped to the side, out of the way.

“Study,” Father growled. Drake looked dazed and resigned, slumping his way out of the kitchen. Brown, though, was obviously panicking. Her face twitched every few seconds,  hands playing endlessly with her hair. Damian wondered if she had never been punished before. But that was impossible, he had known the girl for only a few weeks and had seen her act and speak disrespectfully many times. He had never witnessed Father lay a hand on her, but some of his teachers never disciplined when others were present either, it was not uncommon. Perhaps she was merely a coward, afraid of pain. He wrinkled his nose in disgust but she barely spared him a glance, hurrying after Drake. Father paused for just a moment to run his hand through his hair and stare at the ceiling. Pennyworth gave him an encouraging nod and Father’s gaze sharpened. He strode from the room and Damian actually found himself feeling relieved that Jason would likely not call. He didn’t know how his brother would react if he had to witness their punishment. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind with Drake, but Jason had seemed to have taken a strange liking to Brown and he hated seeing people he liked harmed. Even if it was deserved.

Pennyworth was washing the dishes that Mara handed him. “Now that Master Bruce, Master Timothy, and Miss Stephanie are safely returned, may I suggest you both head to bed? If Master Jason calls I will fetch you immediately, but it seems unlikely at this point.”

Damian exchanged quick looks with Mara. “Very well, Pennyworth,” he said. Mara handed Pennyworth the tray and bowed shallowly before following him out. The rich wood gave way to the carpet that lined the staircase and Damian paused on the third step, his eyes drawn inexorably towards the study door further down the hall. He glanced at Mara and their eyes locked before they continued upward. She was the only one of his...family left, at least until Jason returned with Mother. An alliance, until such a time, would likely be beneficial. Even though his nose was still tender, and his bruises were likely just as vibrant as Mara’s still were, the anger that had led to their fight was gone. Damian pulled ahead and grabbed the door. He glanced back. Mara paused behind him, eyes darting from him to the door. Damian pulled it open and gestured for her to go inside. Mara’s expression wavered for a second before she settled and nodded, walking past him and climbing onto the bed. Damian clambered up after her and lay on his back, staring up at the dark ceiling. His stomach didn’t feel so tight, tonight.

***

Bruce stood outside the study door, taking a moment to breathe. He had to remain calm, he had to go about this logically, and he could not yell. He reminded himself of Stephanie’s reaction the first -- and last -- time he had shouted at her. They had just gotten back from patrol, the thick scent of smoke clinging to both of them, and he had lost it. He hadn’t talked about the danger of running off on her own, hadn’t told her how seeing the building go up in flames had made his heart stop and his hands shake and black spots cover his eyes. Instead, he had yelled about recklessness and stupidity and losing Robin. And when he paused in his tirade and really looked at her face, the anger shriveled up in his chest, revealing the fear that had been hiding behind it. She hadn’t been panicking, hadn’t gotten angry or cried. She’d been completely blank and still. It was so alien to the normally chatty, bouncy girl that Bruce had completely forgotten what he had been angry about. At least until that night, where nightmarish versions of Jason and Stephanie cowered away from him, blood dripping from shattered bones peeking through blackened skin.

Bruce rested his forehead on the study door. He refused to be like Arthur Brown, refused to threaten and rule by fear. Batman was for terrifying criminals, not his children.

Nodding sharply to himself, Bruce straightened his shoulders, set his face in a passive expression, and opened the door. Tim and Steph were sitting in the chairs in front of his desk, eyes pinched and fingers picking at skin. His heart lurched but he pushed it down. This wasn’t fear; fear was sharp eyes and ears that pricked to every sound, hands limp and helpless, muscles tense but unmoving. This was anxiety, and he reminded himself that it was good they were nervous, they had broken the law. He still hated the way their eyes followed him.

Bruce sat behind his desk and stared at them over steepled fingers. “What happened tonight?” he asked, keeping his voice calm and bland.

“‘S my fault,” Steph said immediately, gripping the arms of her chair for balance. “Tim jus’ wanted to go around taking pictures and I made ‘im come.”

“You didn’ force me to do anythin’,” Tim argued. Bruce noted with a flicker of amusement that his pronunciation was slipping. “I made m’own decisions, coulda said no.”

“I kept pressuring you ta drink,” she fired back, Gotham accent stronger than usual.

“’M sixteen, I c’n stand up to...peer pressure ‘f I want to.”

“You wouldna known about the party ‘f it wasn’ for me!”

Bruce watched them argue back and forth, face never moving. “Well,” he finally said as both teens paused to breathe, “I think you’ve both got a good idea of what you did wrong tonight.” They stared at him as if they had forgotten he was there. Bruce didn’t let himself smile, meeting both of their eyes. “This was very irresponsible, not to mention dangerous. You both know the kinds of things that happen in Gotham at night, especially when someone is drunk.” His heart beat faster just thinking about it but he shoved the adrenaline into a box and locked it. Calm, he had to remain calm. He shifted his gaze to focus on Tim. “We have trackers for a reason, Timothy.” The boy winced at his full name. “I understand the desire for privacy but you disarmed them knowing that what you were doing was dangerous. What if something had happened tonight? As it was, you were gone for nearly,” he glanced at the clock and his stomach tightened, “ten hours.” He hadn’t even noticed Tim was gone for two hours, until he hadn’t shown up for dinner. Disappearing into his room for that long wasn’t uncommon for Tim, but Bruce couldn’t shake the thought that he was a horrible father. He didn’t even know why they had done this! Speaking of….

“Why did you do it?” he asked, tilting his head. “Was there a reason?”

Tim looked away. There was, then. “Jus’...wanted to try it out.” He shrugged, movements uncoordinated. “Everyone does it.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow, remaining silent. Silence was the best tool for making people talk, a natural urge to break the awkwardness overpowering some inhibitions. He had been told he had a very good interrogation face. He...didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not but he had to admit it came in handy. Tim just stared back at him, eyes unfocused. Bruce frowned. How much had they had to drink anyway? He hadn’t gotten a look at the files and had decided on the drive back that he wasn’t going to force them down to the Cave to test it himself. Just going off what he could see, the hangover was going to be quite the punishment on its own.

Right on cue, a knock sounded at the door and Alfred came in with two large glasses of water and a bottle of pain-killer. He put them on the desk, gave Bruce an encouraging glance, and left. Bruce nodded at the water. “Drink, it’ll help minimize the hangover.” Steph immediately grabbed the glass, but Tim just stared at it. Bruce frowned. “Tim?”

“I don’ wan’ this to be like b’fore,” he said, words slurring into each other. Bruce felt his chest seize with panic as Tim’s eyes got watery. He never knew what to do when people cried. He was going to mess this up more than he already had, wasn’t he? “I don’ wanna be left behind.”

Bruce had no idea what Tim was talking about. “What do you mean, ‘left behind’?”

Tim sighed wetly. “S’okay. You have the kid you want back. And a real kid. Y’don’t need me an’more.”

There was a hard lump sitting in Bruce’s stomach and it just kept getting bigger. “What ?” Steph winced at his raised voice and Bruce made himself push it down. This was no time to get hysterical. He was around the desk and kneeling in front of Tim in a heartbeat. “Tim, no.” He rubbed his thumb across his son’s knuckles. “I’m glad Jason is back and I’m happy to have Damian but I still need you. I still want you.” Tim was crying now and Bruce’s own throat was uncomfortably tight. He was suddenly hyper-aware of Stephanie’s presence. “You’re my son, Tim.” What did it say about him that saying this was easier because Tim was so out of it? “That’s not going to change, no matter how many siblings you have.” Even if the thought of there being more made him twitch. He could barely take care of the kids he had now, any more and he’d ruin them all more than he already was. How could he have let Tim think this, that he was replaceable? How had he not noticed? World’s Greatest Detective and he couldn’t even tell when his son needed him.

Bruce pulled Tim forward into a hug, one hand cupping the back of his neck. He would do better. He had to. “Tim, I-” His throat tightened again, invisible hands squeezing. Dick. Jason. Talia. Harvey. “I-” Why couldn’t he say it? Mom. Dad. Alfred. Everyone he said it to was hurt. Some left. Some stayed or came back and he didn’t deserve it because then he would say it again and it would hurt them again. Tim was hurting already, he couldn’t condemn him to that, couldn’t ruin him more than he already had. But everything he read said it was important to tell them, every day. But how could they know that he would ruin them if he did? He was ruining them when he didn’t. “Tim,” he said, trying to push it into that word. Names were safe, he could say those without screams or cracks or acid sizzling on skin.

And, miracle of miracles, Tim’s arms tightened around him. “Love you too,” he whispered, and Bruce felt like an anvil had been lifted and then dropped right back onto his chest. Tim knew, and Bruce knew that if he told him and the inevitable happened, Tim would come back. Again and again and again. And the thought terrified him. He ran his fingers through Tim’s hair.

“You are not a stand-in,” he said. “And I’m so glad you came into my life.”

Tim made a tiny, wounded sound and Bruce tightened his grip. He ruined people, but he could keep Tim safe. He could protect him. He had to.

Chapter Text

Dick leaned on the door jamb, arms folded loosely and head tilted to the side. “How ya doin’ there, Timmy?” Tim kept his head on the table as he raised his hand slowly and flipped him off. Dick laughed. “I heard you had quite the adventure last night.”

Tim groaned into the table and Dick’s smile flickered. He pushed off the doorway and sat next to Tim at the kitchen table. “What’s going on?” he asked, nudging the boy with his elbow.

“Nothing.”

Tim’s voice was barely a whisper and Dick frowned. “Don’t give me that. You were already acting weird before you left.”

“And I wanted you to leave me alone. Kind of like now.”

“I’ll make you coffee if you tell me what’s going on~” Dick singsonged.

A moment of silence.

“Sdmnnjsn,” Tim mumbled into the table.

“What?”

Tim peered over his arms just enough to glare at Dick. He held up both hands. “Hey, I can’t get you your coffee if I can’t understand you.” Any person who thought they were above bribery had never been a sibling.

“It is Damian and Jason,” Tim said, each word enunciated perfectly. Then he planted his face right back into the table.

“What about them?” Dick had noticed the animosity between them, of course he had. It wasn’t exactly subtle. But driving Tim to go out drinking? There had to be something else.

No response. Dick sighed and got up, the scraping of the chair enough to make Tim wince. He brewed a mug of coffee and sat back down, but when Tim reached for it Dick pulled it back. “What about them?”

If looks could kill he’d be six feet under, but as it was Dick just raised an eyebrow until Tim caved and grumbled, “I already talked about it with Bruce, it’s fine.”

The other eyebrow joined the first. “You... talked.”

“Yep.” Tim’s gaze slid to the mug. “He said I was his son and that Jason and Damian didn’t change that and he almost said the L word.”

Dick whistled. “Really?” His stomach sank at the implications. How had he not noticed? How had he let his little brother feel that way?

“Yeah.” Tim propped his cheek on one hand, eyes half-lidded. “I think he’s really trying, ya know?”

Dick thought back to the past few weeks, and even before that. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I think he really is.” Bruce was doing better, now he had to as well. Tim didn’t deserve to feel this way.

He snapped out of it and smiled at Tim, sliding the mug over. “Careful, you still look kinda green.” Predictably, he was ignored. Oh well, if Tim ended up puking his guts out, Dick would be there to help. And to say ‘I told you so’.

***

Bruce rubbed his eyes with one hand, pinching his nose to stave off the headache. How many hours had passed? Hours filled with damage control, emailing everyone from Lucius to his lawyers to the very pissed-off PR department. It hadn’t just been about Tim either, he still hadn’t made a public statement about the pictures of Damian and Mara and it had been three days. The media was getting very antsy and social media was going nuts. Normally, Bruce accepted his fame as a necessary evil, a side effect of him having the money to fund his night work and another avenue to aid Gotham, but now? Now he wished he could be an average person who only had to worry about what the neighbors might think, not every news channel in the north-east. Damian’s suggestion that they simply dispatch of the photographer had been...troubling and unhelpful. As much as the children knew of fighting styles and hacking, social media had apparently not been on the syllabus, which Bruce discovered when he had to explain what ‘going viral’ meant. Mara had suggested that ‘Mistress Talia’ would take care of it once she returned, and while Bruce had no doubt that she was capable, he was not at all sure her plan wouldn’t try to ruin him.

Dick had warned him repeatedly that outright claiming the children as his own without talking to Talia was a horrible move. Bruce knew he had a point; Talia was ruthless when she thought herself slighted, and there wasn’t much worse than stealing her children out from under her. But what was he supposed to say? Bruce resisted the urge to bang his head on the desk. Start at the basics. All good lies had a bit of truth to them. ...he could say that they were the children of Talia Head, an old flame of his and a ‘good friend’? That she needed to travel for work and so asked him to watch them? If the media bought it, it would provide Talia some control and make her less likely to bolt, would feed the popular rumors that they were his, and he and Talia could discuss options later. Ra’s would find them- but he must already know, with how many spies he had. Bruce nodded and typed up another email to the head of PR, whose messages had grown increasingly terse over the past three days. He was highly impressed at her ability to send a clear ‘fuck you’ through business speak.

Bruce hit send and pushed his chair back, the leather creaking as he tilted his head up, closing his eyes for a moment. His eyes were gritty and his movements sluggish. He knew he had to rest soon, before he became entirely useless. But something kept tickling at of his mind, like an itch at the back of his throat. He was forgetting something...but what? Bruce sighed and stood. He had to check in on Tim, make sure he wasn’t making himself worse somehow and deliver his punishment -- they may have had a good talk last night, but Tim couldn’t run off and drink every time he was feeling upset. He was halfway to the stairs and going over the pertinent points in his mind -- alcohol, obviously, but also the disabling of his trackers -- when he froze, foot hovering over the ground. Of course. How could he be so stupid. Bruce whirled around and ran back to the computer. He pulled up the coordinates for the tracker Jason had promised to keep on him. It was still active, and he felt a surge of relief. It didn’t mean he wasn’t harmed somehow, but at least it hadn’t been destroyed, as it surely would have been if Jason had been abducted. It was in Bosnia of all places, a stretch from his previous location in Yemen, but the move would explain the radio silence. Bruce sighed quietly, tension leaking from his shoulders and exhaustion hitting him like a freight train, and shut down the computer. He headed upstairs, blinking at the bright sunlight streaming through the windows. He had been downstairs longer than he thought.

He glanced in the kitchen but the only one there was Alfred. The man looked him over with an unimpressed expression that never failed to make Bruce feel like a child. “I see you’ve finally emerged, Master Bruce.” Bruce grunted. He was too tired to form words. “Of course, sir.” The sarcasm was laid on thick this time. “If you are looking for Master Tim, he is in the bathroom nearest the library. Master Dick is with him.” Bruce nodded his thanks and wandered up the stairs, hands stuffed in the pockets of his sweatpants. He knocked on the bathroom door and Dick poked his head out.

“Oh hey, B,” he said cheerily. “Timmy just drank a little too much coffee.”

“Hate- you- Tim panted from inside.

“I would hug you if you weren’t so gross right now, Baby Bird!”

A groan and more retching. Bruce frowned. “Are you….” He gestured towards the door. Dick eyed him for a second before smiling.

“Yeah, I got this, B. You go get some sleep, ‘kay?”

Bruce hummed and leaned in to peer at his younger son’s back. “Drink a lot of water, Tim.”

Indistinct muttering followed him down the hall, but Dick’s laugh made his lips quirk up. His room was blessedly dark and quiet, the drawn curtains and the manor’s thick walls for once making it the easiest thing in the world for him to flop onto the bed and fall asleep.

***

Dick looked up from the board as Cass entered the room. He was still a little upset with how she had ‘handled’ the kids fighting, but...she had seemed legitimately confused, when Bruce was explaining why it was wrong. Sometimes, he almost forgot the extent of her abuse. The scars were impossible to miss, her struggle with words even more so, but the more subtle stuff? The very concepts she didn’t understand, the way she thought differently? She was so good at...blending in, he supposed, that it was easy to forget her first language wasn’t just movement, it was violence.

“Hey, Cass.”

She studied him for a second before nodding cautiously. “Playing?”

“Yeah, this is called Candyland.”

“Bright.”

“Uh, yeah, it is. Do you wanna….” He gestured at the seat beside him. Cass brightened and sat next to him. “Okay, so it’s Tim’s turn...Tim?”

Tim was staring at the board as if he was going to cry. “I’m stuck in the Chocolate Swamp!”

“That means he has to stay there until he draws a red card,” Dick explained to Cass.

“I just got out of the Lollipop Woods!” Tim wailed.

Dick raised an eyebrow. “How many of those painkillers did you take?”

“The normal amount.” Tim folded his arms and pouted at the board.

Cass poked Dick in the ribs. “Tired,” she said, pointing at Tim. “ Very .”

“Yeah… do you wanna lay down for a while, Tim?”

“Just take your fucking turn.”

Dick raised both hands in surrender and picked up a card. “Okay, so I got green so I have to move to the closest green square.”

“Race?” Cass tapped the castle at the end. “Win?”

“Yep.”

She looked at Tim. “Losing.”

Tim stuck out his tongue. “This game needs...strategy, okay? I’m doing fine, I can win.”

“Sure, Timmy.”

“Shut up, Dick.”

Dick’s phone chirped for the millionth time and he sighed as he glanced at it. He had learned his lesson of ignoring messages. The piece fell from his hand. Cass looked up from her examination of the board.

“What wrong?”

“Uh, I gotta -- shit -- I gotta talk to Bruce.” He got up. “You wanna play for me, Cass?”

Cass scrunched her forehead but nodded, scooting in front of the board. “Will win.”

Dick flashed her a grin and left. He held himself back long enough to close the door before bolting for Bruce’s room. He barged in, door slamming against the wall. Bruce jolted up, hair wild and eyes blurry. “Wha-?”

“Bruce! Babs just texted me, you gotta see this-”

“Dick?” Dick shook his phone in Bruce’s face until the man took it, squinting at the bright screen. “The tracker? I saw it already-”

“Keep reading!”

Bruce grunted and Dick frowned. He sounded exhausted. “It’s...blinking -- shouldn’t do that --...morse code...backup!?” Bruce was suddenly rolling off the bed and Dick had to jump back to avoid getting bowled over. “When was this? Is it still in Bosnia? We need to get over there- Dick, prep the jet.”

“Bruce! Bruce, what about the kids? Tim?”

Bruce didn’t pause in his march and Dick had to run to catch up. “They can stay here.”

Dick raised an eyebrow. “They already snuck out once-”

“We certainly can’t take them into a hostile situation and Tim is benched for two weeks and grounded!” Bruce headed down the stairs and Dick huffed in annoyance, dashing down the hallway to poke his head in the library. Cass was placing her piece on the castle, a triumphant grin on her face.

“Great job, Cass! We gotta go.”

“What’s up?” Tim asked, twisting around.

“Jason sent a message. Bruce is getting the jet ready. Ah, not you.”

Tim froze, halfway out of his seat. “What?”

“You’re benched, remember? And Bruce wanted me to remind you to get started on your paper.” Tim groaned, long and heartfelt, and Dick grimaced in sympathy. It was really his fault essays were Bruce’s go-to punishment. When he was a kid, he had loathed sitting still and writing, so Bruce had made him do exactly that. There was no time to sympathize, though. Cass was already beside him. “The kids are staying here too-”

“Oh great, just what I need.”

“-and Alfred of course. See you later!” Dick didn’t wait for a reply, turning and running back to the stairs, Cass hot on his heels. He was very determinately not thinking about the last time Bruce had been racing to save Jason. Nope. Definitely not happening this time, not when he was planetside and they had Cass and Oracle. He wouldn’t let it happen again.

***

“Wait with Black Bat, Nightwing,” Batman growled

“Not a chance.”

Nightwing-”

“I wasn’t there the first time, I sure as hell am going to be there now.”

Bruce stared at him for a long second. “...fine. Take the left.”

Dick nodded and ghosted off through the trees, boots silent on the grass. The house was disturbingly innocuous, connected to the road by a long dirt driveway and surrounded by forest, just like all the other ones in the area. It had been a torturous few hours, as the jet pulverized the sky and they tried to plan for a situation they knew nothing about. This was the very definition of going in blind, and there was nothing the Bats hated more. Even then, the hours on the jet had nothing on staking out the building. Dick had wanted to jump in, his every nerve screaming that there was a timer ticking somewhere and they could not be late again, but Batman didn’t allow it. Logically, Dick knew he was right. This was dangerous, Jason had called for backup. Jason, who had a small horde of assassins at his fingertips and zero qualms about lethal force. But knowing that gathering intel was the right move hadn’t stopped his fingers from drumming a constant tattoo against his thighs as he crouched in the undergrowth, the way his eyes jerked to every rustle and twitch, the way his ears strained for the sound of laughter.

Nothing.

They had watched for two hours and nothing.

No movement, no sound, no sign of life except the lights and a single car. The tracker just kept blinking its message on repeat. It was so obviously a trap Dick couldn’t help but be a little insulted.

So obviously they were going to spring it.

Dick made his way to one of the windows on the left side of the house. No one had moved inside the room for the hours of their stakeout and the mask didn’t pick up any heat signatures. “In position,” he said softly, checking the room once more.

“Copy. On my signal. ...Go.”

Dick picked the lock and slid the window open, hoisting himself inside and rolling to crouch on the floor, escrima sticks held at the ready. Nothing moved, no trap sprung to poison or impale him. A quick sweep of the room showed no bugs. It was like any average house, a couch and comfortable chairs and fireplace waiting to be lit. A bookshelf against one wall and one book laying open on an armchair. Dick’s hands tightened around his escrima as he walked to the door. “I’m in,” he said, tapping his comm. “No bugs or cameras.”

Batman grunted. “Be careful, start sweeping. Black Bat, prepare to come in at the back, second floor.”

“Roger,” Black Bat said. It scared Dick, sometimes, the way the two of them...changed when they put on the masks. He knew he could talk and joke around in masks with Tim as if they were in plainsclothes, but when Bruce was wearing the mask...even calling him by his name felt strange. When Cass wore her uniform it was like everything that she hid during the day took over; her movements became sharper, she spoke less, and she would remain still for hours without twitching. Dick...when he put on the mask it was kinda like putting on glasses; his focus sharpened and he was more alert, but his personality didn’t change. The mask meant responsibility, but not an entirely different personality. Dick Grayson was Nightwing and Nightwing was Dick Grayson.

And this was not the time to be reflecting on the psychology of masks.

Dick turned on his heat sensor and, when he saw the hallway was empty, cracked open the door and slid through. Heat sensors didn’t pick up mechanics unless they were running on a very high power source, so traps were still very possible. He picked his way through the house, sweeping the rooms both with and without scanners, and listening as Black Bat got the order to move in. Dick peered around another corner, crouched down and hugging the wall. Anyone waiting around the corner would be aiming at head-height, Bruce had explained to him, back when he thought his leotard was a perfect vigilante uniform. The armor might have upgraded, but the training held strong. Up ahead was the kitchen. He turned on his heat sensor again -- keeping it on was more disorienting than it was worth -- and his eyes widened. “Finally,” he breathed, raising a hand to the comm. “I got a heat signature in the kitchen.”

“How many?”

“Just one. I’m moving in.”

He edged forward, fingers hovering over the switches that would electrify his escrima. He paused at the side of the door, taking a calming breath, before whipping around the corner, escrima raised. A girl looked up from the fridge, a sandwich hanging out of her mouth. Dick blinked. The girl closed the fridge and took a bite of the sandwich. She looked bored. “Sup.”

For a moment, Dick wondered if he had fallen asleep on the jet and was having a stress-induced dream. Then Batman’s voice said, “Report,” in his ear and he snapped back to attention. He put the comm on automatic, so he wouldn’t have to keep touching it, and spoke just loud enough for it to pick up. He barely moved his lips but the girl wasn’t paying him any attention, anyway, digging in a cabinet. He really hoped she didn’t pull out a weapon.

“It’s a...girl?”

“What.”

“A girl. Eating a sandwich.” Nope, not a weapon, just a cup. “Not hostile.”

“Do you recognize her?”

“No. She...looks familiar though….” He couldn’t place why she looked familiar, just a vague feeling of recognition. Maybe it was the hair? Not many people dyed it that color.

“Why?” Black Bat asked.

“Uh...hey, what are you doing here?”

The girl was sitting on the counter now, one knee drawn up to her chest and a glass of milk by her side. “I live here, dumbass. At least temporarily.”

“...Right. So, why are you living here temporarily?” He lowered the escrima slowly, eyeing her bare feet and sweatpants.

“My dad has a job. Which reminds me…. Daaaaad!” she bellowed. Dick may have jumped, just a little. Hey, he had been on the verge of a panic attack for hours, he was justified in being a little jumpy. She spared him a single raised eyebrow before continuing, “They’re here!”

“I’m on my way,” Batman said. “Black Bat, stay hidden.”

Apparently content with her delivered message, the girl went back to finishing her sandwich, and Dick went back to trying to decide whether to be friendly or to just knock her out before she tried anything.

“So, uh, what’s your name?”

“Rose.”

“And you knew we were coming?”

“Yep,” she popped the p.

“...do you work for Talia?”

The girl laughed. “No.”

Dick glanced around the room, ants crawling on his skin. Something wasn’t right here. Why was she so calm? Why did she look familiar? “So, uh, who’s your dad?”

“That would be me, Grayson.” That voice he absolutely recognized. Dick whirled around, escrima charging up with a dangerous zap. Slade Wilson raised an eyebrow at him. “Now there’s no need for that.”

Dick’s brain, which had previously been running at about half-speed out of pure confusion, had now jumped into hyperdrive. His eyes darted this way and that behind his mask, factoring everything in. Environment could be a lot better, but he might be able to get some leverage if he got on the table or the counters. Those cabinets might be handy to bang someone’s head into. But the room was too small, way too small. He couldn’t pull out any acrobatics and in the past that had been his only real line of defense against the much larger man. And he hadn’t forgotten the girl that was still lounging on the counter. Oddly enough, Slade wasn’t wearing his armor. Dick had never seen him in such casual dress before, just some jeans and a white tank top. But that didn’t mean much, not when it came to him.

“I mean it, kid, I didn’t call you all the way over here and give the location of this place away just to fight you.” Slade sounded annoyingly amused and Dick had no delusions that the man hadn’t noticed him casing the room.

“Where’s Jason?” Dick demanded, not moving from his ready position.

“As you’ve probably figured out, not here.” Slade held up the tracker, letting Dick see its blinking light, before tossing it to the side. A gauntlet snapped out of the shadows to catch it and Batman stepped into the half-light of the kitchen.

“What did you do to him, Wilson?” he snarled.

Slade eyed the man for a second before walking further into the kitchen. Dick restrained himself from jumping the man. So far Slade hadn’t made any aggressive moves, and this was a fight he couldn’t win. The mercenary pulled out a chair, lounging in it as if he didn’t have two angry vigilantes standing in front of him. “I’m the one that took Jason and Talia,” he said simply.

Dick’s escrima crackled louder. Batman loomed beside him. They had considered it, of course, they would be fools not to, but this was confirmation. This was Slade luring them here to taunt them.

“Relax. How many times am I going to have to repeat myself? I didn’t bring you here to fight.”

“Then why are we here?” Dick snapped.

Slade let the front feet of his chair fall back onto the floor with a bang. “You’re here,” he growled, “because those bastards realized their cash wasn’t enough for anyone to go up against an al Ghul. It was them or Rose,” he swept a hand at his daughter.

“Wait, they kidnapped your daughter? Since when do you even have a daughter?” Dick complained.

Slade ignored him. “They’re hunting down enhanced individuals with fast healing.”

“Why?”

Slade looked unimpressed, both at the question and Batman’s attempts at intimidation. “The same reason they always do.”

“They’re spouting some bullshit about helping people and curing cancer,” Rose piped up for the first time. She shook her head. “Middlemen might even believe it. But there’s no way.”

“What makes you say that?” Dick finally turned off his escrima, letting his hands drop.

Rose wrapped her arms around her knee, other foot kicking against the counter. “If they just wanted enhanced people, they wouldn’t have used me as leverage to get the al Ghuls. They coulda just kept me. This is either personal or…”

“Talia has something you don’t.”

“Don’t forget the kid.” Slade tilted his head to see Batman better with his one eye. “The ‘contract’ was for both of them, only one wouldn’t cut it.”

Dick’s eyes widened. “Has Talia been in the Lazarus Pit?”

“Once,” Batman grunted. “A long time ago.”

“Who knows about the Pits?” Dick’s mind was racing. “And who would risk taking Talia? Even if they knew about her defecting, Ra’s wouldn’t be happy with someone getting her first.”

Rose tilted her head to the side. “Not even a demon will walk into a viper’s nest.”

“What does that mean?” Batman demanded. “What do you know?”

“I thought you were a detective?” Slade’s voice was light and playful and Dick didn’t trust it for one second. The man stood and Rose hopped off the counter. Dick stepped back into his stance, adrenaline surging through his body once again, but Rose simply disappeared through the kitchen door and Slade made to follow her.

Wilson,” Batman barked. Slade paused. “What do you know?”

Slade looked back at him, a smirk curling his lips. “I know a lot of things, Wayne. I know your name, I know where Talia and Jason are, and I know that this house is set to blow in twenty-three seconds.” Dick’s eyes widened. Slade opened the door. “You have one week, then I’m taking these bastards out my way. And I’m a lot messier than you.”

The door hadn’t even finished closing before Batman was on the comm, ordering Black Bat out of the house. Dick opted for a window instead of the door -- if there’s an easy path, it’s usually a trap. Be creative, Robin -- bolting for the treeline, a timer gradually ticking down in his brain. Abstractly, he noticed the car peeling down the dirt driveway, but he was mostly focused on not dying. “Nineteen,” he breathed, “twenty, twenty-one, twenty-” A wave of heat and sound came roaring towards him and Batman was on him in a heartbeat, fire-poof cape wrapped firmly around them as fire and debris flew through the air. It seemed to go on for an eternity and all Dick could think was that Jason hadn’t had Bruce to wrap him safely in his cape, had been all alone when the fire razed the building and the roof fell in and- He wrenched himself away from that line of thinking, focusing on his heartbeat and the matching one pounding against his spine. Finally, it was quiet and the cape was pulled away. Dick stood up, still a bit wobbly, and stared at the crater that used to be a house. A tree burned merrily a few yards away, and Cass popped up on the other side of the crater, dust turning her black uniform gray.

“I fucking hate Wilsons.”

Chapter Text

“Pennyworth.”

Alfred turned from chopping nuts to see Damian standing behind him, arms folded behind his back. “Yes, Master Damian?”

“Where is Father?”

Alfred held back a sigh. Of course, no one had bothered to inform the young master before they raced off to Jason’s aid. He laid down the knife and wiped his hands on his apron. “Master Bruce received a message this morning, through Master Jason’s tracker.”

Damian’s eyes widened. “What did it say?”

Alfred couldn’t stop the corner of his mouth from turning down. “‘Backup’.”

The boy lurched, hands dropping into fists. “Why have we not gone to assist?!”

Alfred flicked on the stove and filled the kettle with water while he answered. “Master Bruce, Master Dick, and Miss Cassandra have dispatched with all haste to do exactly that.”

“Without me?! Without us?!” Ah, there was the anger.

“I’m afraid so, Master Damian.” Alfred turned back to face him, hands clasped in front of him. “They did not know what they were headed into and so deemed it too dangerous to take you and Miss Mara along.”

Damian was shaking. “He is my brother.”

“No one is questioning that, Master Damian.” The kettle whistled and he turned off the stove. “Tea?”

“This is no time for tea.”

“On the contrary, I find that emotionally trying times are the perfect time for a cuppa.” Alfred set out two cups and saucers. “You may have two biscuits if you desire.”

The promise of extra sugar proved enough for the boy to sit at the table, though he still leveled a scowl at Alfred. “I am not a child to be bribed with sweets.”

“I would never dream of such a thing. Cream?” Alfred sat down and sipped his own cup. “I understand the desire to assist, Master Damian, but that is not what Master Jason would have wanted. He was quite adamant that you remain here, where it is safe.”

Damian glared into his cup. “He could not possibly expect us to remain here when he is in danger.”

Alfred examined a biscuit before taking a bite. “This is a position I have become regrettably used to over the years, Master Damian. The fact of the matter is that he does expect that. If you were placed in danger, Master Jason would doubtless ‘lose it’, as they say.”

“He can do so after we save him!”

Alfred watched Damian for a long moment. He pushed the plate of biscuits closer to the boy. “Master Bruce will be contacting me as soon as he knows anything.”

Damian picked at his biscuit. “What if they are too late? What if he is dead? Or gone, like Mother?”

Alfred put his tea cup down with a soft clink. “Oh my boy, Master Bruce will do everything he can to bring both Master Jason and your mother home safely.”

Damian refused to look up. “But you cannot guarantee that he will be able to do so.”

Alfred sighed. “No, I am afraid not.” There was no point in lying to the boy, he had seen far too much in his few years of life to be placated by a pretty lie.

Oddly, this harsh truth seemed to settle Damian a little. “Very well,” he said. “You will inform me as soon as you know anything.” It wasn’t a question, and normally Alfred would make a comment about demanding things, but now wasn’t the time.

“Of course, Master Damian. Now, finish your tea. You can assist me with dessert.”

Damian blinked. “What are you making?”

“Baklava. It is a new dish but I’m sure between the two of us we can make a decent showing.”

“...very well, Pennyworth.”

***

Tim lay flat on his back on the floor of the living room, staring at his phone.

hey

hey

sry you got caught up in all this

we went over this

or i was dreaming

which is possible

bc moonshine

Tim grinned a little at that before biting his lip and typing,

verdict?

grounded

3 wks

Oof

yeah. u?

hafta write a paper

Grnded til i finish

eesh

think id take the 3 weeks

tell me abt it

write drunk edit sober ;)

its abt the prohibition

even better lmao

ur not wrong XD

my mom might lemme come over if its 4 studying

we cn suffer 2gether

pls

im alone w the demons

y?

B,D,C went out after J

smth bad?

Probably

:/

ill ask my mom

Thx

Tim dropped the phone on his chest and glanced up at the laptop waiting on the couch. The blank document stared back at him. He groaned and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes until colored lights exploded behind his eyelids.

He was still lying there when Mara wandered into the family room. She froze mid-step, eyes flicking around the room. Poker by the fireplace: on the other side of Tim, he would reach it first. Book on the side table near her: heavy, good for bludgeoning, might be too heavy to be effective. Lamp, same table: unwieldy but breakable if it came to it, the shards would be handy. Rug: thick, good for comfort but might hinder movement. Couch, next to Tim: could trap him if tipped over. Tim, laying on the floor, on his back, covering eyes: threat level low?

He looked up and squinted at her before dropping his head back on the floor. “Hey Mara.”

Mara took a careful step forward. His lack of concern could either mean he was so confident she did not register as a threat, he was very good at appearing relaxed and was planning to ambush her -- his foot tensed and her eyes narrowed -- or he didn’t think she would attack for some reason.

Tim tilted his head up slightly and raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you gonna sit down or…?” He had decided that avoiding them wasn’t doing anything, drinking certainly didn’t fix anything, and treating them like they weren’t tiny murder machines was worth a try. It pleased the vindictive side of him when Mara looked taken aback by his question. He had spent the last weeks feeling off-balance in his own home, now it was their turn. Another part of him whispered that they probably had been feeling just as off-balance but that way lies guilt and he didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with that right now. He propped himself up on his elbows and grabbed his laptop off the couch, moving it to the coffee table. He gestured widely at the couch and went back to his phone. Steph hadn’t texted back yet.

Mara eyed Tim and the couch. There was another couch off to the side, as well as several cushy armchairs, but would he be offended if she declined his offer? Would he attack? What was more risky, spurning the couch or putting herself closer to him? After a moment of indecision, she edged forward and sat on the very edge of the couch, muscles tensed to move.

Tim peeked over his phone at Mara. Her discomfort wasn’t funny anymore, not when she looked ready to run at any second, feet planted securely on the floor and body tight with tension. He sighed and sat up slowly, trying to avoid spooking her. “Um, hey, I know we didn’t really...get off to a good start. But I mean...we’re kinda family, right? And we don’t know how long you’re going to be staying here so we might as well make the best of it.” If this was Damian, he wouldn’t have brought this up at all, but Mara had never seemed as outright hostile as her cousin.

Mara’s eyes widened without her permission. Was this a trick? They hadn’t exactly been kind to him since they arrived -- Jason didn’t like Tim, which meant she didn’t either -- but he was extending an olive branch? Her brow itched to furrow but she didn’t allow her control to slip that far. “An alliance?” she asked carefully.

“Yeah, I guess.” Tim fiddled with his phone, flipping it over and over. “I mean, why not, right? I don’t really have anything against you, I was actually really excited when I found out who you were-” shit, he didn’t mean to share that much, “-so, um, I thought maybe we could try it out?” He faltered to a halt in the face of her confusion.

“What did you do to Jason?” Mara asked. Tim looked taken aback.

“What do you mean? I didn’t do anything to him.”

She folded her arms. “You must have, otherwise he would not hate you.”

Tim looked down, picking at his phone case. “Oh, um...I think he’s mad about me being Robin. Because, you know, he died in the costume and...he thinks I replaced him, you know? But I didn’t mean to!” Please stop talking. “I mean, I always looked up to him, he was my Robin, and I used to think like, what would Jason do here, and-” stop, “I was really happy when we found out who he was too but then he hated me-” why was nervous rambling the one thing Bruce couldn’t train out of him? “which really sucked, you know?”

Tim was red-faced and picking faster at his mobile case. Mara allowed her eyebrows to draw together. It looked like he hadn’t meant to tell her that much. Was he that much of an amateur or did he trust her for some reason? Perhaps he truly meant what he said about an alliance and was attempting to build up trust. Mara watched his nervous fingers for a second longer before saying, “I accept your offer. An alliance could be mutually beneficial, especially since, as you said, we do not know how long it will take Jason to find Mistress Talia. However,” she stood up, appreciating the height it gave her over the boy sprawled on the floor, “any hostile moves on your part will result in immediate termination of the agreement.”

Tim blinked -- was she training to be a lawyer or something? -- but shook himself out of it and sat up to shake the hand she solemnly extended. “Of course, no hostile moves.”

Mara nodded briskly and turned to leave, but Tim’s voice made her pause. “Hey, um, you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. We could watch a movie? I’ve got nothing better to do.” She turned back, eyes flicking from him to the television. Jason had introduced her and Damian to movies, they had watched several while they were laying low before coming to Gotham.

“Very well,” she agreed after a moment, sitting back down on the couch. Tim pushed himself up and flopped down on the opposite end of the couch, scooping the remote up from a side table.

“What do you feel like?”

Mara shrugged minutely. “I have seen few movies. Jason introduced us to them during our flight from the League.”

Tim turned to stare at her. “Wait, seriously? What have you seen?”

Mara frowned in thought. “Wizard of Oz, Paddington, Lord of the Rings -- he said we would have to read that together -- and...one with a singing family and nuns?”

“Sound of Music?”

“Yes.”

“Is that it? Have you ever seen Star Wars?”

Mara cocked her head to one side. “No, I have not.”

“Oh my god, he failed you.”

She bristled. “He did no such thing-”

“Sorry, sorry, bad joke.” Tim clicked around on the tv and got up to pull the curtains closed. “You’re gonna love this.

***

Steph gulped at the sight of the paparazzi camped outside the manor gates. The taxi driver pulled the car to a stop behind the crowd and twisted around to look at her. “You sure you want to be left here?” she asked, concern wrinkling her brow. “Don’t want me to wait for a bit?”

Steph appreciated the sentiment but she was...87% sure Alfred would let her in. But… “Actually, that would be great. If the gates open for me you can go.”

“No problem.”

Steph got out of the car -- she had had to pay in advance for the 20-minute trip -- and walked towards the gate, dread twisting her stomach in knots. People were already starting to look over, wondering who the random girl walking up to Wayne Manor could be. It wouldn’t take long for one of them to recognize her and then-

“Hey, aren’t you the girl Mr. Wayne bailed out with Timothy?!” one voice demanded. Steph winced and quickened her pace, ducking her head and pulling the hood of her jacket over her head. Cameras started flashing from all sides and questions pelted her as she elbowed her way to the intercom. She pressed the button and waited. There was always a moment here where she held her breath, a moment where the gates might not swing open. She wouldn’t be surprised if it actually happened this time, after she messed up so badly.

A particularly obnoxious reporter jammed a recorder in her face, demanding to know her name. Steph hunched her shoulders and pressed closer to the intercom, hoping she wouldn’t miss it if Alfred talked to her. With all the shouting around her, she couldn’t be certain. She shifted as the minutes ticked by and wondered how long it would take for her standing out here to become weird, how long until they were watching her through security cameras and wondering when she would take the fucking hint.

The intercom clicked.

“Hi Alfred,” she called as loudly as she dared. “It’s…” shit, she didn’t want them to know her name, “it’s me,” she finished lamely.

“Of course, Miss,” Alfred said, mercifully not saying her name either. “If you would enter through the smaller gate-”

Steph glanced at the smaller, person-sized gate to the left of the big ones. “Thanks, Alfred!” She shoved her way through the crowd, pulled open the gate just enough to squeeze through, waved goodbye to the taxi driver, and slammed it behind her. She took a deep breath and started up the driveway to the manor, which was obnoxiously far away. Rich people. Fortunately, Batgirl training meant she was more than able to handle the walk and she arrived at the front steps a few minutes later.

The door opened and Steph tried to suppress the relieved smile that spread over her face. “Hi Alfred,” she said. “Um, I’m here to help Tim with his paper? Figured it was only fair since I got him into this mess.”

“Master Timothy is perfectly capable of getting himself into trouble, but your assistance is appreciated. I believe he is in the family room.”

“Thanks, Alfred.” She kicked off her shoes and stuck them in the closet by the door with her jacket.

Tim was indeed in the family room but he wasn’t working on a paper and he wasn’t alone. Mara was sitting forward on the couch, staring with frightening intensity at the tv. “This is a foolish plan,” she murmured. “They are not nearly strong enough to take on the Death Star.

“Hey,” Steph said. Tim and Mara both looked up and then right back at the screen. Steph huffed. “Well okay, then.” She flopped down next to Tim, watching as Han brushed off the idea of helping the Rebels.

“Han is wise, he can see this will not work,” Mara said. “Luke should have gone with him.”

“But what about all the people that would die if the Death Star destroys that planet?” Steph asked her.

“Jason says that you cannot help others if you get yourself killed,” Mara replied, eyes still locked on the screen. “I am inclined to agree with him.”

Tim sighed loudly. “Just watch.”

They did, until Luke decided to put away his equipment and Mara decided that she just couldn’t let that go. “Why would he-” She cut off as Tim reached over and blindly covered her mouth with one hand, eyes still fixed on the screen.

“Shhh- ow fuck!” He jerked his hand away, staring at her. “Did you just bite me!?”

“Shut up, both of you!” Steph said. “It’s the best part!”

“She-!”

“Shhh,” Steph followed Tim’s lead and covered his mouth. He settled for glaring at her before turning back to the screen as Luke ‘trusted the Force’ and fired the missiles. Steph didn’t move her hand until the credits began to roll.

Tim scowled at Steph before examining his hand. “What the hell Mara, you broke the skin!”

Mara glared right back, hackles rising. “You attacked me-”

“No I didn’t!”

“Alright, everybody calm down. Geez. Okay, Tim apologize for touching Mara without her permission.”

“Wha-” Tim stopped at the expression on Steph’s face and stopped, frowning in thought for a second. “I’m sorry, Mara. I didn’t mean to scare you. I do that kind of thing all the time with Dick and I didn’t think.”

“Good.” Steph turned to Mara. “Now you apologize for biting him.”

Mara glared up at her. “I was defending myself-”

“Yes, and I totally understand, but you’ve been here long enough to know Tim wouldn’t attack you.”

The two girls stared at each other in silence for a long few moments before Mara looked away and grumbled, “I apologize for biting you.”

“Excellent!” Steph clapped her hands and God, when had she become her mom? She didn’t sign up for this! “Now Tim, go clean your hand while Mara and I pick a movie.”

“We’re binging,” Tim said as he got up.

“Do you want to watch the next Star Wars movie, Mara?” Steph asked, waving Tim off.

Mara watched him go before looking back at her. “There is another? With the same people?”

“Yeah! There’re lots.”

Mara eyed her for a second before leaning back against the cushions. “Very well.”

“Cool.” Steph queued up The Empire Strikes Back. “Sorry about Tim, he’s an idiot sometimes.”

Mara looked at her hands. “It was...not an attack?”

“Nah, just like...a playful way to get you to stop talking.” Steph’s chest hurt as she looked over at Mara. Did she really see all physical contact as an attack? Tim hadn’t been moving quickly or being rough. “It’s...something siblings and close friends do sometimes.” Mara looked like a deer in the headlights and Steph realized with a jolt that she had probably never had friends. God, she wasn’t qualified for this.

Tim came running back in, breaking the silence. “Okay, let’s do this!” He had a small white bandage wrapped around his hand, probably because a bandaid wouldn’t stay on. She had just hit play when Alfred came into the room.

“Hard at work, I see,” he said dryly.

Heeey Alfred.” Tim flushed. “We were just...Mara’s never seen Star Wars!”

“A critical lack, I’m sure. However, I have just received a message from Master Bruce. He and the others will be arriving in approximately fifteen minutes, so I am afraid Star Wars will have to wait.”

Alfred had barely finished his sentence before all three children were bolting for the study. He rolled his eyes a little as he turned off the tv and returned a pillow to its proper place, but he would be lying if he said it was placed as carefully as usual or that his own steps weren’t unusually fast as he followed his charges to the Cave.

Chapter Text

Doctor Moretti ordered her restraints changed merely a day after Jason was returned unconscious with burns seared into his temples. It was obviously an apology, an attempt to get back on her good side, and she was disgustingly grateful for it. The chances of her freeing herself, let alone Jason, while trapped in the advanced cuffs were next to nothing. Only her long experience with the impossible becoming reality stopped her from ruling it out completely.

Talia flexed her fingers and rolled her wrists in the handcuffs. They were still advanced, wider and with more padding than traditional cuffs, but she could move. And that opened up a whole range of possibilities. “Thank you,” she said softly, inclining her head to the man.

He smiled, putting a hand on her shoulder, and it took every ounce of restraint she had not to rip it off. She had spent too long playing the meek, agreeable woman to ruin it now. “Of course. You’ve been a model patient and we are very grateful for your cooperation. We really are saving lives here.”

“We really are,” she echoed, forcing her smile to remain steady.

He left and Talia resisted the urge to slump back into the bed. This was not her most exhausting mission, but it was catching up. She could not break character, not even for an instant. She had to let Jason be dragged off to be experimented on with nary a word, only scolding him for fighting back. Every time his eyes met hers she added another tally against these doctors. Every time he yelled her name or forced himself to look away from her she pictured the life draining from their eyes. It would be harder, now, to resist his cries, to hold herself back. Every nerve in her body screamed at her to do it now, to move now and save him. But she remained, watching Jason sleep restlessly across the room. He never had been able to sleep soundly on his back.

Talia was very aware of the timer ticking down over both of their heads. Jason had not yet succumbed completely to the Madness, mostly because he was tied down and often drugged, but she could see it through the cracks, the rare moments when he was completely lucid between sessions. The way his eyes jumped from corner to corner, the way his neck tensed and shoulders bunched, his breathing just on the far side of too fast, all of it pointed to a mounting storm. And once that storm broke, there would be no going back. The Madness did not spare its subject injuries, it balked only in the face of death. She had seen Jason fight on broken legs and with shattered sternum, deep stab wounds and collapsed lungs. In the midst of a full Pit Attack, Jason would not hesitate to shatter his own arms, if it meant escaping the restraints. And while the Pit may not care about her son’s body, she most certainly did.

And so she waited, tamed the rabid beast that had been growing inside her over the past week, clawing at her control and tearing at her mind. She continued flexing her fingers, forcing the nerves to wake up. Every day a nurse had come in to massage her hands and feet back into wakefulness. They didn’t want to give her nerve damage, after all, Doctor Moretti said. But she had always been drugged when they did it, only waking up to the lingering pins and needles running up her limbs. Now she could feel her fingers twitching of her own volition, and she felt a surge of triumph. It was a ridiculous, paltry thing, to wiggle a finger, but in that moment the pain of her nerves all firing at once felt like freedom.

***

“The demon is obviously referring to Ra’s,” Grayson said, feet propped up on the batcomputer and ash smudging the blue lines on his suit, “but who’s the viper?”

Father pushed Grayson’s feet off the computer before bending over the keyboard and pulling up a large file. “There are many possibilities,” he said. “Ra’s has many allies and even more enemies.” This was a new side of Damian’s father, one he had only seen glimpses of in the past. Father had been softening himself, purposefully making himself less threatening, more Bruce Wayne than Damian suspected he usually was. Now he was focused sharp as a razor blade.

“Viper’s gotta be an enemy, why else would Ra’s not go in their territory?” Brown pointed out

“They could be someone who used to work for the League as well,” Father said, folding his arms as he stared at the screen. “Something could have caused them to become enemies while in our system they are still listed as allies. We can’t rule anyone out completely without looking closer”

Damian frowned. The Viper. The name sounded familiar, a vague tickle in the back of his mind.

Father was dividing up the long list of Grandfather’s enemies. He stared at Drake for a moment before saying sternly, “You are still not allowed out but we need all hands on deck right now. Deathstroke gave us one week to resolve this before he takes over.” Drake’s face lit up as he ran over to one of the smaller computers and Damian scowled harder.

“What can I do, Father?” he asked, staring up at him. Father stared back.

“Alfred said you were helping him make dessert?”

Damian blinked at the non sequitur. “Yes.”

Father nodded and turned away. “You can continue doing that.”

Damian’s eyes widened. All the frustration and worry that had been bubbling up inside him for the past hours exploded. “He is my brother!” he yelled. He had barely enough time to see everyone turning to look at him and Mara’s horrified face before he realized what he had done. His blood went cold and he dropped to one knee, bowing his head to expose the back of his neck. “Forgive me, Father,” he said, hating the way his voice was shaking, hating the way his hands were shaking even more. “I meant no disrespect.”

The silence roared through his ears and he fought to keep his breath from echoing through it. His hands wanted to clench, his spine wanted to curl, he wanted to be back in the little apartment with Mother and Jason. But he kept his palms splayed against the floor, his shoulders straight, and waited.

It seemed like an eternity later that Father spoke but his internal clock said it had only been a few seconds. “Damian, I’m not going to hurt you.” Father sounded upset; of course he was upset, Damian had just shouted at him, had just tried to defy a direct order - “Please get up.”

Damian stood immediately, keeping his head bowed and his hands open by his sides. He was still shaking.

Father’s voice was soft when he spoke again, once more mellowing himself to Bruce Wayne. Why? Was Damian so weak that he had to be coddled? Why would Father coddle him when he had just shouted at him? Was this a trick? To get him to lower his guard before the sword finally fell? “Damian, I’m not angry at you.” How could that be true? He had just done the unforgivable. No one yelled at their superiors and lived, especially not the superior. In the League it had been Ra’s, here it was Father. “Damian, please look at me.”

Damian forced his head up, trying to force his traitorous limbs to still. He blinked in surprise when he realized Father had gone down on one knee himself, so that he could look Damian in the eye. “I would never hurt you,” he said. Damian was frantically trying to connect the dots. Was he really...not angry? How could that be? It didn’t make any sense! “You’re right,” what? “Jason is your brother and you have every right to be worried about him. I am...trying to protect you, but I understand that leaving you in the dark will not help.”

“You left without telling me,” Damian said, voice watery. He didn’t know what was coming over him, how on earth he could dare to question his father’s decisions, especially right now, but Father’s eyes were so earnest, so open, that the words just fell out.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Damian didn’t understand. Father could choose what to tell or not tell Damian, that was his right, why was he apologizing?

“You can help us sort the files, okay? We’re looking for any reference to snakes.”

Damian forced himself to focus. Find Jason. That was all that mattered. “Yes, Father. Thank you.”

Father smiled at him. Smiled! “Can I give you a hug, Damian?”

Father was asking permission to touch him? He wished to hug him? But he had just been so disrespectful and...he really wanted a hug. He nodded stiffly. “You may.”

Father was still wearing his suit, which made it a little awkward, but the way his cape settled around them, the press of armor against him, it felt right. When Father finally pulled away, Damian wished for a moment that he wouldn’t. But there were more important things to do. He squared his shoulders and headed over to another computer terminal. In the back of his mind he turned the name over and over.

Viper.

He knew that name.

How did he know that name?

It wasn’t until several hours later, after Father had finally sent him and Mara to bed, that it hit him like a bolt of lightning. He sat straight up in bed, covers pooling around him, Mara’s breathing a counterpoint to his thudding heart.

“Mara!” he hissed. “Mara!” He shook her and she jolted away, one hand swinging a knife for his throat. He smacked it out of her hand and grabbed her wrist as hard as he could. “Ibnat Khal ! Astayqiz <Cousin! Wake up>!”

She sat up, glaring at him, voice groggy from sleep. “ma hdha <What is it>?”

Damian’s eyes were wide. “I know where the Viper is!”

***

Mila closed her eyes, fingers pressed hard into her eyelids, and took a moment to focus on the expanding of her chest as she breathed. But she could not escape her mind for long. The door swung open and Jamal walked in. “Wir haben einen anruf <We have a call>.”

Mila leapt to her feet and raced through the halls of the abandoned apartment building they had taken up residence in. There were holes in the wall and graffiti sprayed everywhere from past vandalizers, but it was decrepit enough that few people ventured inside anymore, which meant they could operate freely. The ‘danger of collapse’ signs they had placed around the perimeter helped too.

The control room was on the second floor, towards the back of the building. Harder to reach by any dare-devil explorer and close enough to the ground that every trained League member could make the drop with ease. “ma aldhy namalakh <What do we have>?” she demanded. It was nearly guaranteed that all League members of Talia’s caliber would understand German, if she wished to speak her mother tongue, but it was better to be safe.

Tesia bowed shallowly from near the small bank of computers they had collected. “mukalimat min hatif alsyd <A call from the Master’s phone>.”

Mila’s heart froze in her chest. It had been days, days of frantically searching, days of frayed nerves and fighting, days of stopping some of the newer recruits from committing seppuku. Mistress Talia had never been a fan of the practice, no matter how much her father liked the show. “What is the purpose of taking your life?” she had once demanded, when Mila held the blade ready to her stomach. “Retake your honor by righting your wrongs, not by running where your shame cannot reach you!” Mila had repeated that message more times than she liked, recently.

Hal hu <Is it him>?” she asked breathlessly.

Tesia shook her head and Mila’s stomach sank. “syd Damian <Master Damian>.”

Mila took the phone. “marhabaan, ya amyr <Hello, my prince>.”

hal wajadat 'ami wa'akhi bed <Have you found my mother and brother yet>?” the boy demanded.

Mila bowed her head, even though he couldn’t see her. “La, ya amyr <No, my prince>.”

laqad wajadatu fikrat ean huiat asirihim <I have found a clue to the identity of their captor>.”

Excitement jumped in Mila’s gut. “takalam, ya 'amir, nahn mstedwn <Speak, my prince, we are ready>.” Heads rose around the room at her words, eyes brightened, hands moved to unconsciously tighten sheathes.

Sawf tamur alrijal aldhyn ma zaluu fi mawqie Gotham bijame abn eami wa'ana. sa'akhbiruk bima yjb ealayk faealah bimujrid 'an nakun maeak <You will order the men still in Gotham to collect my cousin and I. I will tell you what to do once we are with you>.”

Mila’s eyes widened. She stared at the floor for a second, resisting the urge to bite her lip. She had learned her lesson when a teacher kicked her in the jaw for it, almost severing her lip completely. “ya 'amir, 'akhik kan wadhana jdana- <My prince, your brother was very clear- >”

'ant fashilat ‘akhi <You failed my brother>,” he snapped, cutting her off. “Walduti!  'iidha kunt targhab fi tashih ma qumt bih, fasatafeal ma 'umirt bih < And my mother! If you wish to right what you have done, you will do as I command>.”

Mila swallowed hard. She looked around the room, at the eagerness they simply could not hide. They were lost, had hunted every lead down to the ground and found nothing. “kama kunt alqiada, 'amiri <As you command, my prince>,” she breathed.

Hasan <Good>.” Damian hung up the phone and stuffed it in his pocket. Mara met his gaze, mouth a determined line. “Jahz <Ready>?” She nodded, the hilts of her knives just barely shifting at the movement.

Damian nodded back, his katana a reassuring weight against his spine, and turned to the door. Jason had explained that the windows were all alarmed to send an alert directly to the Batcomputer and both Father and Pennyworth’s phones, so they couldn’t sneak out that way, at least not from the second floor. But if they opened a window somewhere it wouldn’t be out of place -- perhaps the kitchen, if Pennyworth was still there -- Father would likely dismiss the alert. They would have to be fast either way.

Damian took point as they ghosted through the hall and down the stairs. Any second he expected a hand to shoot out from a dark corner, a booming voice to command them to stop, but nothing moved. Everyone else was still down in the Cave, and the pair paused in the living room. Damian risked a glance around the corner before padding over to the intercom next to the doorway. He fiddled with the buttons until it was set to broadcast only to the kitchen -- they would be done for if Father heard -- and cleared his throat. He had practiced in their room until Mara gave a nod of approval and now Father’s deep, raspy voice came easier.

“Alfred, we need you down here.” He released the button and held his breath, throat stinging slightly from the effort. The clicking of Alfred’s heels passed the door and Damian forced himself to wait an agonizing few seconds before slipping through and toward the kitchen. The clock was really ticking now. They had mere minutes until Alfred made it downstairs and realized he had been fooled. Damian rushed into the kitchen and shoved the window open. He carefully pulled the screen out and handed it to Mara before climbing through. Mara pulled it in place behind her but there was no way to fasten the clasps from the outside.

“Leave it,” Damian hissed, already running for the gate. Mara set the screen down and bolted after him.

A shadowy figure loomed out of the darkness when they reached the gate and Damian increased his speed. The assassin linked their hands together and held them at about waist height. Damian jumped into the air, one foot landing in their cupped hands, and was launched up and over the fence. He heard Mara’s feet land with a dull thud behind him as he dove into the car waiting on the other side. She slid in a second later, followed by the assassin, and the car pulled quietly away.

The blood was roaring in Mara’s ears. She couldn’t believe they were doing this. The Batman would surely catch them and once he did…. She shuddered at the thought. A small voice in the back of her head pointed out that he had not been angry when Damian had shouted at him, but that had to be because Damian was his son. She had no such connection. It was just one more thing that did not apply to her, the heir that both was and was not.

Damian was sitting like a stone beside her and Mara turned to look out the window. Large gates and long driveways gave way to suburbs and then to gradually towering buildings. They stopped before reaching the city proper, pulling off into the parking lot of an old office building. The car didn’t stop, skidding around the side of the building and around to the back. A small, dark airplane waited for them. The door opened and Mara jumped out, eyes flicking from the fence wrapped around the property to the security lights that had had their wires cut. Talia’s people fell into place surrounding them as they darted for the plane.

'akhrajna fi alhawa' <Get us in the air>!” Damian barked, glancing toward the road before the door hissed shut.

ealaa alfawr, ya amyr <Right away, my prince>.”

“He will be right on our heels,” Mara said quietly, sitting and trying to ignore the churning in her stomach.

“I know,” Damian said, matching her tone. “We only need a little time.”

For what, Mara wanted to ask. What do you intend to do? These were people who had forced Deathstroke into working for them, the people who had managed to hold Mistress Talia and Jason for days. Did Damian expect them to simply be able to barge in and save them? They had Talia’s assassins, yes, but depending on how many people this mysterious ‘Viper’ had, they could simply be sending them to their deaths. Mara glanced at Damian out of the corner of her eye.

“You said you know where the Viper is, but not who.”

“And?”

Mara gritted her teeth. “How do you know where but not who?”

Damian eyed her for a second before huffing and turning to face her. “I heard Mother and Grandfather discussing it. Mother said,” he paused and when he spoke again his voice was a close imitation of Mistress Talia’s, “‘There have been whispers about the Viper. That we fear her. That she is too powerful for us to encroach on her territory.’”

“That doesn’t explain where her territory is, though.”

Damian shot her a glare. “We were in Grandfather’s quarters, while they were talking they kept pointing at the same spot on the map.”

“Where?”

Damian faced forward again. “Bosnia.”

Chapter Text

Mila did not wring her hands as she stood waiting for the Prince’s arrival, her posture perfect, the blank expression every Shadow had beaten into them fixed firmly to her face, but she wanted to. She had been agonizing over her decision for the hours it had taken the jet to arrive. Willingly going against the Master’s orders, even if the Prince had commanded it, was no small act of defiance. She would have been punished severely for it at the League, kept alive only if Ra’s decided her worth outweighed her transgression. Her only hope was that assisting in the Master and Mistress’ rescue would balance the scale.

Aintibah <Attention>!” she snapped as the small jet landed. She dropped into a deep bow as the door opened and Prince descended, the small group of Shadows arranged behind her following suit.

The Prince looked over them with a critical eye. “So these are the Shadows that could not defend their Master,” he said, voice shockingly cold for one so young. “You should all be killed for failing in your duty.” He let that hang over their heads for an eternal moment. “Luckily for you, we are short on resources.” He started marching past them and Mila fell in a step behind him. “What is our status?”

“Ten of the Shadows under my command have dispatched to Sarajevo, ya amyr. They arrived about two hours ago and are searching for any sign of movement.” Mila felt exhaustion tugging at her fingertips, but she kept her head high and her voice crisp. It had not been an easy day, what with having to transfer their entire force from Yemen to Bosnia to meet the Prince. The flight had been spent in failed attempts at resting and anxious planning. Once they had arrived, they had to find a small enough village that their diminished power could take it over and then do so without attracting outside attention. “If you would share more information, our search would be-”

“I do not wish to repeat myself,” he snapped. “You will put me in contact with your Shadows on the ground.”

“As you say, ya amyr,” she said, bowing as deeply as possible without breaking stride. “We have set up a command center inside their leader’s house. All communications with the outside world have been cut off, we are the only ones who can send or receive messages.

“At least you have done something right,” he sneered, marching past the small crowd of townspeople without a second glance. A baby cried and one of the guards barked an order in Serbian. “Do not kill the people, we do not wish to draw attention.”

“Of course, ya amyr.”

The Shadow guarding the door bowed to the Prince before pulling it open. The house was smaller than Mila would have liked, but it was the largest in the village so it would have to do. The Prince folded his arms, waiting for the call to go through. Mila offered him the chair at the head of the table, sweat running down the back of her neck. Most of the Shadows stood against the walls, while Mila and her fellow commanders sat. The girl that had been tagging on the Prince’s heels sat as well. The communicator clicked and Jamal’s voice echoed through the room, “Mila. Has the Prince arrived?”

“Indeed he has,” the Prince said.

There was a pause before Jamal said, “Ya amyr, forgive me. What are your orders?”

Damian steepled his fingers, watching the Shadows gathered around the room unblinkingly for several seconds. “The people who took my mother,” he started slowly, “are extremely skilled, or at least wealthy enough to hire such people. They have successfully taken my brother as well,” his voice became cutting, “despite you already being on guard. We are currently looking for what I believe is their stronghold. Some of you will doubtless die tonight. Perhaps in doing so you can regain a fraction of the honor you have lost.”

Damian dropped his hands, folding them in his lap to hide the way they trembled. “You are looking for any mention of The Viper. This, we believe, is the title used by the one orchestrating these attacks. My cousin,” he nodded to Mara, “is my second. You will listen to her as though she were me.” Mara’s eyes went wide before she locked down the expression, inclining her head to him. Damian met her eyes for a moment before looking back at the assembled Shadows. He channeled every moment of fear and anger into making his voice as close to his mother’s commanding tone as possible. “Do not keep me waiting. My mother and brother have waited long enough.”

***

Alfred knew the moment his feet touched the stone floor of the Cave that he had been tricked. Bruce glanced back at him, the dark circles under his eyes making his face look disturbingly like a skull, especially in the blue light from the computer screen. “Alfred? Is something wrong?”

Alfred whipped around and hurried back up the stairs. He ignored the concerned voices behind him. He ignored the way his knees creaked as he forced his legs to move faster, almost running up the stairs and through the grandfather clock. He ignored the pounding of footsteps as three sets of feet ran after him. He didn’t let up the pace until he paused outside the guest bedroom the children had been staying in. He knocked rapidly on the door, trying to convince his lungs that they were capable of taking a full breath after running up two flights of stairs. He spared half a second to mourn the days he could have done so without breaking a sweat before pounding on the door again.

“I am coming inside,” he said, forcing his voice into a semblance of his normal, crisp tone. “I would be grateful not to be stabbed.” With that, he opened the door, pausing on the threshold, eyes darting from the closed window to the rumpled, decidedly empty bed. He spun around, nearly slamming into Bruce, who was hovering behind him, eyes wide. “No time to panic, Master Bruce,” he said, pushing past him only to be faced with Richard and Timothy.

“What happened?” Timothy asked, craning his neck to try and see around Bruce.

Richard’s face was white. “They’re gone, aren’t they?”

“Unless they decided tricking me into going downstairs was a fun joke, yes, I would say so. Whether or not we can retrieve them is still to be seen. Unless they have help, we should be able to catch up.”

Bruce turned around, panic shoved down, firmly in Batman mode. “We need to get them back.” He tapped the comm still fitted in his ear. “Oracle, the chicks have flown the coop, we’re in pursuit. Alfred, I need you to-”

“-check the security cameras, of course.” Alfred hurried to do just that, barely pausing to catch the communicator Tim tossed to him.

“If they hear you’re the one that started calling them that you probably shouldn’t sleep for a while,” he heard Timothy telling Richard as they ran down the stairs. Two minutes later, as he was flipping through the exterior cameras, Richard’s voice came over the comm.

“We’ve found their exit. Kitchen.”

“You’re sure?” Bruce grunted.

“They couldn’t put the screen back in from the outside,” Timothy chimed in. Alfred switched over to the cameras outside the kitchen.

“I see them. They slipped out the window approximately fourteen minutes ago. I’m tracking their movement.” His flipped through cameras, eyes straining to pick out the children against the dark background. He pulled up the feed from the gate and his heart sank. “They went for the gate. A car waiting, one unknown inside the perimeter. They jumped the gate.”

“How long ago did the car leave?”

Alfred checked the time stamp. “Approximately eleven minutes ago. Four minutes after they first exited the house.”

Bruce cursed. “They’ll be almost to Gotham by now.” Alfred could hear rustling over the comm, probably Bruce pulling on the Batsuit. “If they make it, our chances of finding them quickly-”

“Drop by about 50%,” Timothy agreed grimly. “How do you wanna play this, B?”

“I’m taking Black Bat,” his voice changed to the slightly-modulated one of the cowl. “We’re taking the Car.”

“What about us?!” Richard demanded.

“Get changed and follow.”

“Even-”

“Even you, Robin. Hurry.”

Cass cracked her knuckles in the passenger seat. “Hurry,” she repeated.

“Hurry,” Bruce breathed, slamming the gas. His voice was shattered glass and burnt edges and Cass looked out the window rather than have to see the way his body screamed. “Oracle.” The edges were hidden now but smoke drifted off his words. “I need you to pull up the tracers on the chicks.”

“Already done. Two are in the manor, the others are on the outskirts of Gotham- we just lost another one. You need to be fast, Batman. If they found one they’re not going to stop looking until they find the others.”

Bruce pressed harder on the gas and they rocketed forward faster than he would dare go in Gotham proper. Cass watched the earth blur by and closed her eyes against the memory of Jason’s face when she last saw him in person. He had not been lying when he said he would flay Bruce if they lost Damian and Mara again. She did not know that word, but she could tell it meant to hurt. It was obvious in the brittleness of his words, the cold shield of metal he slammed over his eyes. And when she said she would protect them, the anger he wrapped around him like a blanket shuddered, letting her see the fear and determination and love love love underneath in the twitch of a finger, the squaring of his shoulders, the way he automatically shortened his stride to allow someone with smaller legs to keep up. She had said she would protect, and he had believed her. Cass scowled beneath her mask, looking out the windshield. She promised, and if she had to lock them up in a cell until he got back, she would keep it.

***

Talia waited until Jason was fully lucid to make her move. That meant the burns on his temples were still visible and the dozens of cuts lining his arms and chest were still red and angry, but it was better than him being drugged. The doctors had been coming more frequently and she couldn’t risk them escalating further. She was skilled, but it would be almost impossible to get out of the facility without Jason at full capacity. And he was rarely at full capacity, anymore. The drugs were long-lasting, wearing off slowly and hindering movement even after the mental fog wore off. And that didn’t take into account the injuries he acquired every session. Doctor Moretti had explained to her that painkillers would mess with their tests -- she could barely hold back from asking if their sedatives didn’t -- which meant he felt all of it.

Talia had been glancing nervously from Jason to the door every so often for the past four hours and she let the full force of that concern show as Doctor Moretti entered the room. “Doctor Moretti.” She sat up straighter. “I have some concerns about the sedative you have been using on my son.”

The man came over to her, holding up a hand for the nurses to hold in preparing Jason. His insufferable smile was as firmly in place as always. “Of course, Ms. al Ghul.”

Talia chewed her lip and cast a final worried look at Jason. “Well, he hasn’t been sleeping well during the night.” As she talked, she rotated the name tag she had swiped last night so that the pin faced the handcuff’s locks. “It seems to be getting worse.” The cuffs were stubborn, but she had been picking locks before she could walk. “I’m worried the constant drugging could be hurting him.” The lock clicked open and she gestured vaguely with her hands. “I just-” her voice caught and the pin passed from one hand to the other while he was busy looking alarmed at the tears welling in her eyes. “I want to help other people, but he is my son .” The second lock was easier, now that she knew what she was dealing with.

“Of course, Ms. al Ghul, perfectly understandable. If Jason would stop fighting us this would be much easier. It would be better for our tests too. Unfortunately, we cannot put our staff in danger.” The second lock clicked open as Talia stared at him, wide-eyed. “You understand, I’m sure.”

“I see.” Talia looked down at her lap, biting her tongue against the impulse to say that the constant drugging and torture was not helping Jason’s animosity. She rotated the name tag’s pin, now bent beyond recognition. “Is there any way you could delay your tests, so that I may convince him of the righteousness of your cause?”

Doctor Moretti was shaking his head before she even finished the sentence. “I’m afraid that is out of the question. We will proceed.” He turned to gesture the nurses into motion and that was all the distraction she needed to gain her feet.

“No,” she said softly, relishing the surprise turning to fear as he whipped around. “I don’t believe you will.”

Pins were not designed for stabbing but she managed well enough and Doctor Moretti fell to the floor, scrabbling at the jagged tear down the length of his throat. Talia didn’t wait to watch him die, darting forward on legs that threatened to give beneath her and ending the nurses with three sharp snaps. She ignored Doctor Moretti’s gurgles as she kicked him over and pulled the key out of his breast pocket. The man was not worthy of her attention, and she would not grant him the honor any longer.

“Come, abn,” she said, unlocking his restraints.

Jason blinked at her owlishly. “What-”

She frowned. Perhaps the drugs had built up in his system. She pulled on his arm and he slid off the bed, grimacing as pins and needles flared through his legs. “There is no time to explain. We must hurry.”

“You were faking this whole time,” Jason realized.

“Yes.”

He fell in step behind her automatically. “What the hell, Talia?” She did not reply, swiping Dr. Moretti’s ID card. The door slid open. “Talia!”

She shushed him, peering around a corner. Two guards, no trouble. She flicked her hand and he got the message, huffing but attacking in sync. “You shoulda told me,” he complained as he crushed the man’s larynx, leaving him in a gasping, spasming pile on the floor.

“We were observed at all times.” She dropped her guard and took his gun. Jason scowled, kicking the man’s head as they moved past.

“You’re fucking brilliant, I’m sure you could-”

She turned sharply to face him and he jerked back a step. “Do you think so little of me, abn? Do you think I enjoyed keeping the charade as they tormented you?” Her eyes blazed, fists clenched and body screaming for a release from the days of tension.

He wisely surrendered, holding up his hands. “No, of course I don’t think that.”

“Good,” she snapped, turning on her heel and around yet another corner. The orderly on the other side had barely time to squeak before she pistol-whipped them and shot them in the head. The gunshot rang deafeningly through the halls and Talia stopped, blinking down at the weapon. She hadn’t checked for a silencer; their time in captivity must have been affecting her more than she thought. She cursed, checking the ammunition. There was no hope of surprise any longer. Even now she could hear footsteps pounding towards them.

Jason cracked his knuckles, face split in a savage grin. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

Not as long as I have, Talia thought. She trained the gun ahead and took down the first three guards in as many seconds. Jason darted forward, keeping to one side of the hallway to avoid her fire. Once she ran out of bullets, Talia charged forward herself, using the gun to punch a particularly large guard, stunning him long enough for her to grab his head and flip over his back. She landed on the tips of her toes, already moving for her next target before the first guard had finished falling to the floor, the back of his head touching his spine.

Talia smashed her elbow the next guard’s nose and took a moment to glance around. This was a surprising amount of guards for such an organization, especially considering there was definitely more on the way, but then again whoever was pulling the strings had managed to get Deathstroke on their payroll. Talia’s eyes narrowed at the reminder. Slade would regret that decision the next time she saw him. The split second of distraction, even with most of their opponents eliminated, was all it took. Fire tore through her shoulder, spinning her around half-way. Talia grit her teeth and jerked to the side, racing toward the shooter in an irregular zig-zag pattern. Her knees buckled when she was almost there and she flung herself forward, tackling the shooter and dislocating their shoulder with one swift movement. One shot to the chest made sure they weren’t getting up any time soon and she whipped around, scanning the hallway for other opponents. Jason was the only other person standing, going around kicking the prone bodies and rummaging in their pockets. Talia allowed herself to lean against the wall, reaching up to assess the injury. The bullet was still inside, she could feel it grinding every time she moved. It would have to be removed before her enhanced healing sealed it inside but now was not the time.

She pushed off the wall with a grunt. “Abn, we must go. More guards will be here any minute.”

Jason looked up, eyes gleaming with unholy fire, but he nodded and came over, handing her a pair of boots. “One’a the guards looked about your size.”

“Thank you.” She took the boots and carefully bent over to pull them on, noting his own pair, flecked with blood. She couldn’t stop the stiff way she moved her shoulder and Jason zeroed in on the red spreading over her simple white shirt.

“Is that yours?”

“A single bullet. Easily mended once we are clear.” It was not quite as simple as that anymore. Her time in the Pit had been years ago, before Damian was even born, and the effects had nearly worn off. She would heal, as she always did, but it would be slower, more painful.

“Talia-”

“Not now, Jason,” she said, her tone brooking no argument. Jason frowned but didn’t argue. Talia tied the boots and straightened up. “Come, we will likely encounter more opposition before we are clear.” She ignored the way the corners of her vision blurred, the rabbit-fast pounding of her heart, the clamminess of her skin. Jason was doing fine and he had been through much worse than her in the past days. She would be strong for him.

But no plan survives contact with the enemy.

A moment of dizziness, a shift of the boots that did not fit quite right, and she went down, the steel-toed boot slamming into her stomach nearly making her retch. The leg drew back again and she braced herself.

The blow never landed.

***

All he could see was red and green. Red dripping from his face, where blood from uncounted enemies had splattered him. Green running from one corner of his eyes to the other, until everything hazed with it. Red on his hands as he smashed his fist into supple bone. Green swirling as he slammed the guard’s head into the wall. Red streaks marking the man’s descent to the ground. Green eyes staring up blankly, still trapped in the last moments of fear. Red, red, red, as he turned to check on Talia, still prone on the ground. Green, green, green, as three more guards rounded the corner. Back and forth, one and the other, until he felt like he was trapped in some horror-parody of a Christmas film.

Green, as laughter swelled and footsteps skipped and a voice dug its way into his brain. “Rockabye, Robin, on the rooftop~”

Jason shook his head, snatching up a dropped gun and dispatching of the guards. It wasn’t real. The singing wasn’t real, the scent of smoke wasn’t real, the feel of metal dragging over his skin wasn’t real. He had to focus, Talia was-

Talia was gone. Jason whipped around, but the warehouse was empty. No, wait, he wasn’t in a warehouse, he was-

“When the bones break, the Robin will fall~”

Jason grabbed his hair, pulling as the voice curled through his ears and sunk down, down, down, until he could feel it in his ribs. The green reached up for him, whispering of release and forgetfulness and fight.

Something slammed into his ribs, a fist or a crowbar he didn’t know, and the whispers became a scream and his hands came away from his head wet with blood and everything went dark.

***

Dread rose in Talia’s gut as she forced her body to cooperate, shuffling down the hall, one arm braced on the wall. Jason had been gone when the world had stopped spinning enough for her to open her eyes. If that hadn’t made his state obvious, the mangled bodies on the ground would have. Jason could be brutal, without a doubt, but he usually reserved such practices for the worst of the worst: rapists, human traffickers, drug lords. She stepped over a mangled arm that looked more like roadkill than a limb. These guards did not fit the bill.

Three hallways later a body caught her attention. Or rather, a head. A head meant a bladed weapon. Judging by the neck, it hadn’t been hacked at, so not a knife. This was a sword.

Talia’s breath caught in her chest. She moved faster, ignoring the nausea and dizziness, the limpness of her fingers and the way exhaustion tried to pin her feet to the floor. Her injured arm almost gave out when she rounded a corner but she pushed on, almost running down the hall. The bodies were different, security uniform replaced with a very familiar one, and she forced herself to go faster. She would not lose him, not after everything. She would not be like her Beloved, arriving moments too late.

She lurched around the final corner and could not hold back a gasp. Jason lay slumped on the ground, blood pooling around him. Talia staggered forward on trembling legs, dropping to her knees to press a hand to his neck. The air rushed from her lungs at the slow pulse of her son’s lifeblood. Still there, still fighting. She wasn’t too late.

She brushed Jason’s hair off his forehead, her hand coming away red. The air shifted behind her, the cold silence of the dead replaced by breathing menace. Talia took a deep breath, leaning down to place a kiss on Jason’s forehead. “'ana asif, ya abnay <I’m sorry, my son>,” she whispered. She took the sword from his slack fingers and stood up.

“Daughter,” Ra’s said. Shadows lined the walls. Ra’s Dark Angel stood nearby, the sword held loosely in his hand streaked with blood. Talia knew who it belonged to.

She leveled the sword at the man who raised her, forcing her spine straight and her face free of fear. She may be injured and weak, dressed only in thin cotton splattered with blood, but she was the Daughter of the De- No. She was a mother defending her child, and she would be feared.

Chapter Text

Babs’ fingers flew over the keyboard, pulling up windows and filling screens with lines of code. The comm crackled in her ear as she sipped from her mug of tea; coffee was good but she knew better than to let herself get addicted. She had been healthy before -- you can’t exactly be a vigilante if you don’t eat well -- but it had become even more intense after she lost her legs. It had taken some time to adjust, but she was used to it now. And she knew twenty-three ways to cook salmon.

“Anything?” Nightwing asked.

Babs sighed. “Not yet. I’ve got a search going on any irregularities in air-space and I’m hacking into Archie Goodwin. I’ll have access to their radars in a minute.”

“We’ll be able to find them pretty quick from there, right?” Robin asked. She glanced at his tracker zipping through the streets. “We’re not exactly a tourist spot.”

“Atlantic City is though,” Babs said, watching the radars appear on her screens. “We’re close enough to get interference. Do you have any idea where they could be going?”

“Negative,” Batman said.

Babs grunted and knocked two flights to Metropolis off the radar. “Give me some time to work on it, I’ll narrow it down as much as possible.”

“Copy. Everyone else head back to the Cave. There’s nothing more we can do here.”

Babs watched absently as four trackers turned back towards Bristol, but most of her attention was going into sorting the flights blinking across the radar. Chances the kids were headed to Texas? Low. She took another sip of her tea and grimaced at the temperature.

"How're things going, Oracle?" Nightwing asked through her earpiece.

Babs rolled her eyes. "Not much change in the past five minutes, Nightwing." Her voice was sharper than she intended, the mounting stress of the past few days eroding her patience faster than igneous rock.

"I'm just checking."

She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "I know. I'm sorry."

"I get it." There was a moment of silence as Babs knocked another flight off the radar and Dick presumably didn't crash his bike. "Oracle?"

Oh no, that tone never meant anything good. It wasn't often Dick Grayson sounded unsure about anything. "Yeah?" she asked, automatically softening her tone.

"What if-"

"We don't deal in 'what if's, Nightwing."

"I know. But...Babs-”

“Names.”

He huffed in annoyance. “Ghost is gonna kill us. Like literally kill us, he told B he would skin us alive."

"I know." She had the tape, she knew exactly how serious Jason had been. Then again, she barely knew him anymore. It was hard to reconcile the loudmouthed, dorky kid she had known with the dangerous man that had returned. "Which is why we'll find them. I personally would like to keep my skin where it is."

"It is rather fabulous," Dick said, and she could hear the wavering grin in his voice.

She flipped her hair, even though she knew he couldn't see it, forcing her own voice to be steady and light. "Of course it is, everything I make is." That got her a breathy chuckle. Babs smiled a little herself. Mission accomplished. "Focus on the road, Boy Blunder, or you won't have to worry about Ghost.”

"I'm always being picked on," he complained.

"Of course you are. Poor Nightwing, always discriminated against."

"Thank you for recognizing my pain, that means a lot."

Babs snorted. She frowned at her screen. "Hold that thought." She turned off the comm and quickly clicked through screen after screen. Her eyes narrowed and she opened a new line to everybody. "I might have something."

"Report," Batman growled.

"We've got three flights heading in the same general direction, Europe. Guess which one didn't file a flight plan?"

"Where is it headed?" Robin blurted excitedly. He paused. "Oh, wait, no flight plan, right."

Babs smiled despite herself. "Exactly. I have a general direction but you're going to be hard-pressed to catch up, Batman. They're traveling at 550 knots."

Batman didn't respond, but Robin did. "We're finishing prepping the jet. Can you keep an eye on them?"

"As close an eye as I can, they're going to be out of range soon."

"Does this mean we're finally going to be able to use the green button?" Dick asked. She could hear how hard he was trying to stay cheerful for Tim and Cass.

Batman grunted.

"Will catch," Cass said, voice hard. "Will bring back." Babs pitied anyone who got in her way.

"They're reaching the end of my scanners," she warned, logging into the jet’s systems. She returned Dick's slightly-strained smile. Bruce barely nodded at her, flipping switches and pushing the joystick forward.

"Let's bring them home."

***

Damian wasn't sure what to do with himself. He had already surveyed the security of the town and reviewed their supplies. He had meditated -- or rather, attempted to meditate -- and poured over a map of Sarajevo fifteen times. He could do nothing more until the Shadows on the ground reported in and he was, to use one of Jason's phrases, going crazy. Perhaps he could spar with Mara...but no, he was the leader of the League at the moment, or at least the faction that had followed them into exile, and he could not show weakness. He could not let his control slip for even an instant.

"Ibn ‘ama.”

He turned. "Yes?"

Mara jogged up to him, eyes guarded. "You named me your second."

"I did."

Mara stared at him for a long moment. Damian did not let the hint of nerves in his chest show on his face. He was startled when she saluted, slamming her right fist against the opposite shoulder and bowing slightly. "Thank you."

"You are my cousin," he said, squashing the seed of discomfort. He was used to being bowed to, it was his right, but when Mara did it, it felt...strange. "The only one with the lineage to hold such a position."

She watched him steadily before nodding. "What is your plan?"

Damian lifted his chin, marching past the huddle of the town's old occupants still in the central green. "I do not believe that is your concern."

"As your second, I should know. I can help you."

Damian was already regretting this decision. "As my second," he said through his teeth, "you should be listening to me."

"Jason says a leader is only as good as his men." Mara actually reached out and grabbed his arm, spinning him around. His hand automatically went to his knife but the memory of the last time they raised blades to each other in earnest flashed through his mind, Jason's blood pooling in the cracks between the stones of the throne room floor. He lowered his hand.

"Do not touch me," he hissed.

She did not let go. "Damian, we have had much the same training, even before Jason became our teacher. I can help you. Remember what Jason says? 'Two heads are better than one'? Allowing your second to help you is no insult to your skills."

Damian hesitated.

"You said it yourself, Ibn ‘ama. They should not be forced to wait any longer."

That settled it. He nodded. "Very well. Come." He turned and headed back towards the command-station. The baby was still crying weakly, clutched to its mother’s chest as the woman hummed and vainly tried to quiet it. He stopped, turning a little to stare at the pair. The Shadow standing guard closest to him straightened, one hand going to their sword.

"Would you like me to silence the distraction, ya amyr?"

Damian's gaze flitted up to the Shadow's covered face. "No. Get them some food, all of them, from whatever they had in their cupboards before our arrival. My brother does not tolerate collateral damage.”

"Of course, ya amyr. It will be done."

Damian gave a curt nod and marched into the house, Mara hot on his heels.

By the time the Shadows reported in a few hours later, they had a rough plan hammered out. Very rough. They agreed that, depending on the location, a pronged attack would be best. They would split the Shadows into groups. There would be no time for scouts to infiltrate first; if the enemy got wind of their attack it would be over. Damian had seen the pictures from where his mother had been taken, had counted the bodies. Surprise would be their best weapon, and they could not lose it until they were attacking in force.

“Report,” he said, forcing his voice to remain steady. So close. They were so close.

The Shadow -- Damian could not remember his name -- saluted. “We have found an informant.” He stepped to the side, revealing a young man, near Jason’s age, strapped to a chair. Blood was streaming from a broken nose and his face was bruised.

Damian steepled his fingers together. “Well?”

The young man’s terror fell away, replaced with scorn. “Ово је ваш вођа? Беба? <This is your leader? An infant?>”

Damian stiffened and flicked a finger. The Shadow turned and slammed his elbow into the prisoner’s already-shattered nose. The young man screamed. “Које информације имате на поскок? <What information do you have on the Viper?>” he demanded.

The prisoner answered between sobs. “Мит. А прича родитељи рећи своју децу да их уплашим у понашања. ‘Не одлутају у шуму или поскок ће те!’ ‘Буди миран или поскок ће те чути!' То је све. <A myth. A story parents tell their children to scare them into behaving. 'Don't wander off into the forest or the Viper will get you!' 'Be quiet or the Viper will hear you!' That is all>.”

Који шума? <Which forest?>”

Шта? Сви они, <What? All of them>” he moaned.

Damian rubbed his chin. “hal yaerif alshuyukh 'akthr? <Do the elders know more?>” he asked the Shadow, switching to Arabic.

ybdw 'anah kama yaqul, mjrd qisa, ya amyr <It seems to be like he says, just a story, my prince>.”

Damian thought hard. “mumtaz. 'iifad minh. ln yulahiz mawt wahid fi almadinati. ajealha tabdu waka'anaha eamaliat satw <Very well. Dispatch of him. One death will not be noticed in the city. Make it look like a mugging>.”

kama kunt taqud, ya amyr <As you command, my prince>.” The video message closed as the Shadow bowed.

Damian stared at the table for a moment before standing. “Mara, with me.”

He stopped just inside the doorway of the tiny living room. “The Viper is not just a tale to frighten children,” he said. “If it was, Grandfather and Mother would not have been discussing it.”

“What do you suggest?”

Damian folded his arms, drumming his fingers against his bicep the way his mother did when she was thinking. “If the people in the city believe it to be a rumor, but it is not, the people in the country and forests who have to live with it would know better.” They stared at each other for a second before Damian turned on his heel and marched from the house, a few Shadows quickly following. He didn’t stop until he reached the huddle of townspeople, now quietly passing around food, though they paused when he stopped in front of them. He surveyed the group, arms folded behind his back, before pointing at a girl of about twelve. “That one.”

Two Shadows sprung forward, shoving their way through the crowd and dragging the girl away from her mother. A man, probably the father, lunged forward but froze when a sword was pressed to his throat. Damian eyed him coldly. “Повући се. Или данас ваша крв неће бити једина проливена крв <Stand down. Or yours will not be the only blood spilled this day>.” He turned and strode away, the Shadows dragging the girl behind.

Damian waited until she was tied to a chair before speaking. “Које информације имате на поскок? <What information do you have on the Viper?>”

The girl’s eyes widened. “Поскок? <The Viper?>”

Да <Yes>.”

Her eyes flicked around the room. “А прича <A story>.” Damian slammed his hands on the table, making her jump.

не лажи ми ако желиш да задржиш главу <Do not lie to me if you wish to keep your head>.”

Tears streamed down her face. “Град је нестао преко ноћи. Још је насељено, али народ није наше. Мој стриц је живео тамо, нисмо се чули с њим откад се то догодило. Кажу да људи који сада тамо живе змије су тетовиране на телима, вијугајући од главе до ноге, а води их неко ко може променити облик у поскок. У то село нико није отишао и вратио се <A town disappeared overnight. It is still inhabited but the people are not our own. My uncle lived there, we have not heard from him since it happened. They say the people who live there now have snakes tattooed on their bodies, winding from head to foot, and are led by someone who can change their form into a viper. No one has gone to that village and come back>.”

A smile slowly spread over Damian’s face. “Где је овај град? <Where is this town?>”

***

Mara lay in the undergrowth, the musty smell of old leaves filling her nose. The forest was deathly silent, but the town before them bustled. She tapped out a phrase in morse code on her communicator: None under 15.

Damian’s response was immediate: Copy. He was on the other side of the town doing the same thing she was.

Proceed? she tapped out. This had to be the right place. She hadn’t seen any full-body tattoos yet, but the lack of children was a stark contrast to the previous town, and the inhabitants moved with a speed and fluidity that the farmers lacked.

Damian’s voice came over the comm, barely a whisper but with the authority he had been taught. “All sections, prepare to attack on my command.” He said nothing more, all orders having been given in town. The number one goal was to find and rescue Mistress Talia and Jason. It couldn’t be that hard to find them, the town was very small. The trouble would be getting them out. Mara rose to a crouch. Damian’s voice came again, hard like a bullet. “Advance.”

It was easy to clear the town. Too easy. Mara looked around the central green, dread rising in her gut. They had lost two Shadows, but that was expected in any fight. There should have been more. The trees that had signaled protection only minutes before loomed overhead. What else hid among the trunks and scattered light? Damian’s voice came through her comm again, the cold confidence he had been putting on wavering a little. “Report. Where are they?”

“No sign of them, my prince,” the head Shadow replied.

“What are you talking about?” The voice echoed and Mara looked over to see Damian storming towards the gathering crowd, his sword wet with blood. “Did the girl lie?”

“No.” The Shadow pulled one of the prisoners they had taken upright, ripping off their sleeve. A snake wound from elbow to shoulder. “They use League techniques.”

Damian’s sword pressed to the prisoner’s throat. “Where is my mother,” he hissed, pushing hard enough to draw blood.

The prisoner laughed in his face. “Who is this child, crying for his mother? She is not here, little one. And if she is, she clearly didn’t want to bring you with her.”

Damian snarled and the prisoner’s head hit the ground with a thud. Mara watched the blood seeping into the dirt, brow furrowed in thought. Where could they be, if not here? Damian turned on the remaining prisoners. He jabbed the tip of his sword in the direction of the youngest, who couldn’t have been older than 15. “Get the answers out of him. He does not need to survive the process.” The prisoner’s face went white as a Shadow approached him, but he tightened his jaw and glared at her. His bravery was impressive, but it would not last long. Mara recognized the Shadow; she was notorious among the League, the Demon Head's best interrogator. Well, Mara supposed she was Mistress Talia’s best interrogator now. She was known only as Muchitel. Her name was whispered among the initiates, the one who would uncover your deepest secrets, who could crack your mind open like an egg and wander where she pleased. A shiver ran down her spine and Mara turned away. Perhaps there was a clue that had been missed in the chaos. It was worth another look.

It took nearly twenty minutes and three buildings before she found something. Mara pressed her communicator, switching to a private channel between her and Damian. “Ibn’ama. I have found something.”

“What? Where are you?” A scream cut through his voice and Mara winced, resisting the urge to yank the comm out of her ear. Damian growled in frustration and repeated. “Where?”

“The small house with the black roof.”

He grunted. “I’m on my way.”

Mara let her hand fall from the communicator, staring at the trapdoor she had unearthed. It had been hidden by dirt and a rug, but a corner had been revealed in the trample. It was inconspicuous enough that it wouldn’t be noticed unless someone was being as thorough as she was. It was too big for her to lift on her own, but together they might have a chance.

“What did you find?” Damian’s voice asked behind her. Mara stepped to the side, gesturing mutely at the door. Damian stopped beside her, mouth twisting to one side in thought.

“If we lift together-” she started.

He cut her off. “Yes.” He crouched down and wedged his fingers under the door. Mara grabbed it next to him and they heaved the door open. It crashed to the ground, puffs of dust shooting into the air. Mara winced at the noise. Damian was staring at the hole, or more specifically the ladder that ran down the side. He glanced at her before grabbing the ladder and sliding down, not bothering with the rungs. Mara leaned over, blinking as he turned on the flashlight from his belt. “It’s a tunnel,” he called, voice echoing a little. “Well-packed, level...this sees a lot of traffic.” He looked up at her. “Well? Are you coming?”

Mara glanced towards the door. “Should we not get-” She looked back down and Damian was gone. “Damian!” she hissed. He didn’t reply. Mara growled, clipping her own flashlight to her shoulder and drawing one of her knives, holding it in her teeth as she swung herself over the hole and slid down. Her feet hit the ground with a dull thud. She could see Damian’s flashlight bobbing ahead of her and she ran after him. The tunnel was bigger than she expected, wide enough for four people to walk abreast and tall enough that even Ubu wouldn’t have to duck. Wherever it led, it must be somewhere important.

Wherever it led was also further away than they expected. She caught up to Damian when he slowed, and eventually they settled for a brisk walk down the tunnel. It would be the height of stupidity to use up all their energy now and be tired when they arrived. Mara had no doubt there would be a fight at the end of this tunnel, and her heart quickened at the thought.

They had been walking for a few minutes when a noise made them both freeze. They looked at each other. “Engine,” Damian whispered.

They darted to opposite sides of the tunnel. Mara pressed her back to the wooden beam that supported the roof, head bowed, clutching her knife tightly. Headlights flooded the tunnel. Her head snapped up, eyes sparking with an idea. There was no time to think, no time to psych herself out. She stepped out from behind the post, turning to face the oncoming vehicle. She could see Damian’s wide eyes out of the corner of her own, his face twisted in what almost looked like fear, but she had no time to reflect on the split-second observation. She flipped her knife around so she held it by the point and drew her arm back. As soon as the blade left her hand she dove back behind the post. The four-wheeler careened past, headlights flashing wildly as it veered into the wall with a crash that made dirt trickle from the ceiling and Mara cringe. She looked over, meeting Damian’s wide eyes. Her heart pounded behind her ribs and her throat was dry.

They crept towards the four-wheeler, both with knives since there wasn’t enough room for Damian’s katana. The driver had been flung several feet away. Even without the knife between the eyes he would have been dead, skull bashed open by his abrupt meeting with one of the posts. Mara grimaced at the bits of brain speckling the wall and planted one foot on his head, tugging her knife out and wiping it on the corpse’s uniform. Damian was examining the four-wheeler. “We can use this,” he said.

“Yes.” Mara sheathed the knife and folded her arms. “That is why I did it.” He scowled but didn’t engage, focusing on turning the four-wheeler around. It was a tight fit but he managed and they both clambered on. Mara frowned into his back as they jerked forward and then slammed to a halt. This repeated a few times as Damian got the hang of the controls. “Shall we get the corpse to drive us there?” she asked. “At least he committed to the wall.” As soon as the words passed her lips she stiffened. Damian stiffened too. In the long moment of silence that followed Mara wished with everything she had that her arms weren’t locked around the boy’s waist. This position was too vulnerable, much too vulnerable, she was a fool to say something like that, what was she thinking-

A pebble dropped from the ceiling, bouncing off the front of the four-wheeler.

Damian snarled and accelerated again. “Be silent or you can stay with him.”

Mara slowly allowed her shoulders to drop, her legs to relax from where they were prepared to launch her backward. Something small and warm that had appeared in her chest when Damian had named her his second unfurled a little bit. The tunnel streaked past them and Mara allowed herself a little secret smile.

Chapter Text

Babs was chatting with Dick about a new tv show he wanted to see when the call came through the jet’s system. They all stiffened and Babs answered Bruce’s question before he could open his mouth: “It’s not one of ours.” Her fingers flew over the keys, setting up the trace as Dick leaned over and accepted the call.

“Hello?”

“I’m impressed you managed to get past us,” a vaguely familiar voice said. Babs frowned, trying to place it.

“Rose,” Batman growled. Babs’ eyebrows shot up. Deathstroke’s daughter? Why would she be calling them? The trace was running and Babs sent a silent thanks to Bruce for building access for her directly into the system. “How did you get this number?”

Rose seemed unconcerned by Batman’s harsh question. “We didn’t think you’d work it out. Guess the ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ title isn’t completely fake, huh?”

Dick glanced from Batman to Babs, eyebrow raised in confusion. “What are you talking about?” Batman shot him a look at revealing their lack of knowledge, but Babs was with Dick on this one. They didn’t have enough information to pretend they knew what the girl was talking about, and if there was any chance Deathstroke and his daughter could help them, they had to take it. It rankled her, and it must have been even worse for Dick and Bruce, but they had to face facts. The plane’s systems were good, but not even it could decipher which country the kids had gone to, much less their precise location.

Rose snorted. “Don’t worry about playing coy, we won’t get in the way. The kid deserves the chance to take these fuckers out himself.”

“You’re with them?” Babs’ jaw tightened at the desperation in Batman’s voice, only mostly hidden by the modulation.

There was a long moment of silence. “What the fuck,” the girl finally said. “What are you doing over Italy?” Babs jolted in surprise and began scanning the systems for trackers. No one should have been able to get access to their system except for her and Agent A. Though no one was supposed to be able to access their frequencies and call them either. Their own trace on the call was inching towards completion and she resisted the urge to bash her head on something. Considering the computer was working with a constantly-moving base and a potentially long-distance call, the speed it was working at was impressive.

“Are you with the kids?” Dick repeated, leaning forward against his seatbelt, voice hard.

“I thought you were hiding in the woods somewhere, oh my God.”

Rose,” Batman snapped.

“It’s Ravager on the job,” she said, voice suddenly cold. “I can’t believe you lost them. Do you even know where they are?”

The trace finally finished loading and Babs made sure the results went straight to the internal gps. Dick exchanged a meaningful look with Batman and Babs sucked in a breath at the location. She overlayed the jet’s last flight path and the urge to bang her head on the desk became stronger. Deathstroke had been toying with them, bringing Batman, Nightwing, and Black Bat within an hour’s drive of the Viper before sending them away with cryptic hints. If Jason were injured or- she cut off the thought with a shake of her head. If Jason were injured in the last two days, she wasn’t sure what Batman would do but it would likely put even Deathstroke’s healing to the test. “We do now, if you’re with them,” Dick was saying, and Babs forced her mind to stop racing and focus.

“We’re watching. They don’t know we’re here. ...Oh my God.”

“What?” Batman demanded, fists tightening on the joystick at the alarm in her voice.

“That means you aren’t doing the scouting. They’re actually going to just go running in- fuck I gotta tell Dad.”

Her voice cut out and Batman stiffened further. Babs would have been worried about him chipping a tooth with how hard he was clenching his jaw, but she was pretty sure his teeth were more false than not by this point. “Ravager? Ravager?” He snarled. “Nightwing.”

“Yep.” Dick slammed a button and Babs watched as their speed jumped dramatically. She pulled up the jet’s energy usage and began slimming down unnecessary drains. The rocket propulsion was great for situations like this, but it also used an insane amount of energy. If they weren’t careful, it might burn through their fuel as well as the electric batteries, leaving them stranded. 

Batman was focused on steering at their new, frankly dangerous speed, but Dick was still trying to raise Rose on the comm. It took a few minutes but a gruff, modulated voice finally answered. Deathstroke.

“I’m sending you coordinates,” he said, cutting Dick off. “It’s two kilometers away from us; that’s where they’re headed. We’ll meet you there.”

“How did you- hello?”

While Dick cursed at the dashboard, Babs set the new coordinates and started investigating the area. There was nothing, literally nothing. “You’re headed into a dense forest,” she said, pulling up satellite images. “Closest town is two kilometers away, that must be where Deathstroke and Ravager are right now.”

Bruce grunted in acknowledgment; Dick was busy spreading spirit gum over his domino. Babs began looking up nearby hospitals or emergency clinics and her mouth twisted at the lack of either. Hospitals were always a last resort, but usually they were at least an option. With the distance between their destination and the nearest medical center, it would be safer to just treat any injuries on the plane.

“We’ll get them,” Nightwing said, pulling on his gloves. “All of them.”


Damian forced his head upright, despite the dizzying pain it sent crackling like lightning down his spine. He tried to get his feet under him, but they didn’t respond properly, scrabbling helplessly across the floor. That’s not good, he thought fuzzily. The bright lights passed overhead at regular intervals, and Damian stared at the legs of the two assassins dragging him by the armpits, trying to bring them into focus. They remained frustratingly blurry, and he took a deep breath to stave off the nausea he could feel rising in his chest. He focused on his legs again, tightening and loosening his muscles. It was jerky and uncoordinated, but had had a little control now at least. They paused outside a door and Damian took another deep breath before forcing his body to move. He planted one foot on the floor and kicked up, aiming at the assassin on his left. A sharp blow to the head and twin jerks to his arms stopped the attempt in its tracks. He whimpered at the fresh pain, black spots floating through his vision as the door opened and he was dragged forward.

They came to a stop and Damian tried to focus his eyes, computer monitors and a tall figure swimming around the room. A hand grabbed his chin, nails biting deep into his skin, and forced his face up. Damian tried to twist away, but that sent daggers shooting through his ears and he stopped, breath hitching.

“So these are the whelps that stormed my base,” a female voice said. The nails dug in deeper for a moment as she turned his head back and forth. “I am not impressed.”

Damian’s head dropped when she let go and he closed his eyes, willing his brain to start working. These...these? Mara! He ground his teeth together and turned his head, squinting at the woman and the girl she was examining. Mara’s arm was hanging wrong, but she was glaring up at the woman with clear eyes.

“I heard some very interesting things about the two of you,” the woman said, releasing Mara and sitting in a big computer chair. She crossed one leg over the other and steepled her fingers. “Things about your mother.”

Damian jerked at the mention, snarling. “Where is she?!” His mind was gradually clearing, but he still felt fuzzy around the edges.

The woman raised an eyebrow. “Yes, that is what they said you were asking. Tell me, boy. Why do you think your mother is here?”

“I know you took her,” Damian hissed, straining against the assassins holding him. “The Viper. My informant told me.”

“Your informant? Interesting. And what would a child such as yourself know of informants?”

“I am Damian al Ghul,” he snapped. “I know much more than that.”

A small smile appeared on the woman’s face and Damian’s skin prickled. “Really,” she purred. “That is most interesting. And your mother would be…?” Damian set his jaw and looked away, confusion twisting in his gut. She must know, mustn’t she? This was just a mind-game, wasn’t it? The woman hummed. “And you, girl? Do you have anything to say?”

Damian looked over at Mara. She looked the woman dead in the eye and spat on the ground. Damian’s eyes widened, impressed despite himself. His head snapped around as the woman stood from the chair, strolling leisurely over to Mara.

“Feisty, aren’t we?” Mara didn’t flinch as the woman grabbed a fistful of her hair, tilting her head back. “I could break you of that,” she murmured. “I have done so before. But I will give you another chance. Tell me, who is your mother?”

Damian blinked. Did she think-?

Mara’s head jerked sharply to the side, the ringing slap echoing through the room, and Damian winced in sympathy.

“No answer?” the woman asked. “It is not as though I do not already know.” A hint of tension left Damian’s shoulders. This was a bad position, but at least now he knew where they stood. These were indeed mind games. The woman released Mara’s hair, stepping back. “Very well. Take them to Cell A.” Damian struggled against his captors as they pulled him back, but he was no match for them in this state. Humiliation threatened to turn his cheeks red, but he swallowed it down. That would be a sign of weakness. The woman turned to the people scattered around the room, who were typing on computers and pretending not to watch the interrogation. “Keep everything locked down,” she said. “Ra’s may well be on his way.” Damian’s chest tightened at the thought, but confusion flooded in once more, pulling the rug out from under him just as it settled. Was Grandfather going to save Mother from The Viper? But Jason said he would kill her. Perhaps he wished to do so himself. It hurt to think that, somewhere deep inside Damian’s chest, but Jason wouldn’t lie. But then who was this person and why did she care about his family? Damian was pulled out of his muddled thoughts when the woman paused, turning to look at them. A smirk ghosted across her face. “You have my gratitude, Damian. You and your sister will make excellent backup resources now that the originals have...flown the coop.”

“What does that mean?” Damian demanded. “Where is my mother? Who are you?!”

The only answer he received was the door sliding shut in his face.


Tim eyed the towering trees, skin prickling and eyes flicking to every shadow, every branch that stirred in the breeze. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as they got closer to the blinking green dot. It was too quiet, too still. No animals scurried through the underbrush, no birds called from the trees. It felt like an ambush, and he saw Nightwing’s hackles rising in the way he held his escrima, thumbs creeping closer to the buttons that would send 65 milliamps of electricity shooting through his opponent. Black Bat was looking around too, fingers twitching by her sides. Batman stopped, frowning at his computer. Tim snuck a peek at the gps on his own glove-computer and his heart gave a hard thump. They were right on top of the marker. He slowly reached to his lower back, unhooking his bo staff but not extending it yet. If something was going to happen, it would be now.

A piece of the ground nearby was flung into the air with a distinctly non-earthy clang and Tim extended his bo in one swift movement, pivoting on his heel to face the threat. Batarangs appeared in Batman and Black Bat’s hands and Nightwing’s escrima crackled a warning. A white head of hair popped out of the hole in the ground.

“Hurry up,” the girl hissed, forearms propped on the sides of the hole. The breeze blew a decaying leaf into her hair and she brushed it off impatiently. Tim glanced at the others. He had never met Rose, after all. He didn’t know if she could be trusted. Batman and Nightwing hesitated, but Black Bat stowed her batarangs away and headed over to the girl. Tim retracted his staff but kept it in hand as he followed. Rose -- or Ravager he supposed, taking stock of the half-mask that closely resembled Deathstroke’s -- disappeared down the hole. Now that he was closer, Tim could see that the piece of ground was actually a hatch and the shaft itself was walled with metal. He waited for Black Bat to reach the bottom before swinging himself onto the ladder attached to the wall.

He jumped when he was still a few rungs above the ground, turning to face the room and landing on his toes, arm held out behind him so he could extend his staff at a moment’s notice. Ravager snorted. “Nice moves, Birdy.” She looked him up and down, mouth twisting in a sneer. “You’re the new Robin, huh?”

Tim scowled, moving out of the way of the ladder. It would be nice if someone didn’t hate him on sight. Nightwing slid lightly down the ladder and Batman landed with a small thud. Tim became uncomfortably aware of how much they all stood out against the clinical white walls and harsh lighting. In Gotham their uniforms meant safety, here they screamed target. If the others were feeling the same they didn’t show it, and Tim straightened his shoulders.

“Dad’s leading them away,” Ravager said. “We need to sweep and back him up. Comm channel 32.” Tim adjusted his comm, noting the sword strapped to her back. He wondered for a moment if she had used it yet, and how badly Batman would react if a girl who looked around Tim’s age started killing people in front of him. “Haven’t found the brats yet, but they have to be around here somewhere,” Ravager continued, brushing some dust off her vambraces. She didn’t seem at all concerned by the children missing in an enemy base. “They’re too valuable for these fucks to kill.”

“And who exactly are ‘these fucks’?” Nightwing asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Dangerous because they’re smart.”

“Cryptic.”

She smiled sunnily and Tim wondered if she smiled like that while cutting people’s heads off. He stopped thinking about it. “You’ve got to earn the ‘World’s Greatest’ title somehow, since you didn’t actually manage to sneak past us. Or keep track of two kids.” She turned and swanned off, seemingly unconcerned whether they followed her or not.

“Oh yeah,” Nightwing muttered behind him. “Definitely Deathstroke’s kid.”

“We’ll break into groups,” Batman said, voice quickening as the unmistakable sound of violence floated back to them. “Robin, Black Bat, go with Ravager. Stay in contact.”

Tim nodded and ran after Ravager, Black Bat close on his heels. He whipped around a corner and had to drop into a limbo-esque back bend to avoid the knife that went flying less than an inch above his nose. Black Bat launched herself past him, landing on the person who had thrown the knife with a loud crack. Tim extended his staff and followed, sweeping the legs out of another assailant and jabbing them hard in the back of the head. He took the second of reprieve to glance around. Ravager had taken her sword out and was slashing her way through the small cluster of...Tim squinted. Assassins? Was this the League after all? A kusarigama-wielding assassin stepped toward him, sending the weighted end of the chain whipping toward him. Tim jerked out of the way, using his bo for extra momentum. He had seen what that small weight could do; Bruce had demonstrated once on a cinder block that had been more dust than block after a few passes. For a few minutes, all that he could think about was the swish-clang of chain smashing into walls, the sweat beading at the tip of his nose, the creaking of kevlar as he ducked and dodged and maneuvered closer. He couldn’t relax once he was inside the range of the chain because the scythe at the other end was immediately swiping at his ribs. He ducked and lashed out with a foot, knocking them off balance and going hard with his staff. He couldn’t allow himself to go back on defense now, not at this range.

Finally, the assassin messed up, extending a little too far with the scythe. Tim ducked under and around, slamming the end of his staff into their temple. They dropped like a stone and he whipped around, bo raised for whoever would come after him next. Rose grinned at him, wiping a trickle of blood from her nose with the back of her hand. “Not bad, Bird Boy.” Tim eyed her, resisting the urge to check if the assassins scattered behind her were still breathing.

Black Bat was staring at the end of the hallway. “Come,” she said. “Fast.”

“Woman of few words,” Ravager said as they jogged after Cass. “My dad would approve.”

Tim bristled automatically at the idea of Deathstroke approving anything, but Cass could handle herself. The three of them ran through the halls, taking out a few lingering assassins and peeking into rooms. Tim was reasonably sure that the kids wouldn’t just be sitting in a room somewhere, but they weren’t about to risk it. He had fallen back to investigate yet another room with a gurney and lots of sharp surgical tools when Ravager yelled, “Found ‘em!”

Ravager was a few hallways over, standing outside a cell with her hands on her hips and a wide grin. Tim skidded to a halt next to her, a new wave of concern crashing into his relief. Damian and Mara were both in the cell, stripped down to their thin underclothes. Damian had a massive black eye that spread past his temple into his hairline and Mara was holding one arm close to her chest.

“Are you guys okay?” The question burst out before he could stop it.

Damian glared. “No, Dr- Robin. We are not okay. Release us immediately.” Tim scowled right back but Mara’s arm definitely needed attention and Damian’s eyes weren’t focusing like they should have been. He stepped back and looked over the cell, frowning. It didn’t look like there was a door; the bars were set directly into the roof and floor. “How’d you get in there?”

“They had a controller,” Mara said. “It lowered the bars.” She was standing tall now and had released her arm. It hung by her side at an uncomfortable angle and Tim winced in sympathy. Damian staggered to his feet as well and Tim felt a jolt run through him at the bloody handprint that was left on the white floor.

“Where are you hurt?” he demanded, tugging futilely at the bars.

“It is a mere...scratch,” Damian panted. “Nothing to concern yourself with.”

“Lie,” Black Bat said. She rummaged in her utility belt and shoved some medical supplies through the bars. “Fix.” She turned to Tim and Ravager. “Where armor?” She glanced back at the kids. “Have armor?” she double-checked.

“Of course we brought armor,” Damian hissed, pulling up his undershirt to reveal a long cut down his side. “We are not idiots.”

“Coulda fooled me,” Ravager said. She turned to Black Bat, ignoring Damian’s angry hiss. “Shall we leave Bird Brain here and go find the kiddo’s shit?”

Black Bat studied her for a long moment before looking at Tim “Good?”

“Yeah, go ahead.” Tim pulled up his gauntlet computer and scanned the cell. “I’ll try to figure out how to open this.

“Oh you don’t have to worry about that.” Ravager tapped her comm. “We found them, cell doesn’t have a door. Black Bat and I were going to get their stuff.” 

“Retrieve and then leave them there,” Deathstroke said. “They’re safe enough where they are and we have bigger concerns.”

Tim fumbled for his comm. “You want us to just leave them? They’re hurt!” He froze as Deathstroke snorted, suddenly remembering who he was talking to.

“Yeah,” Rose said, folding her arms, the duh clear in her tone. Her voice echoed a little, coming from both her and the comm, and Tim had the weirdest feeling that even more people were judging him than usual. He scowled harder. There were enough of those normally, he really didn’t need to add any. “And they’re just gonna get more hurt if they try to fight off a bunch of ninja assassins. We’ll find their shit so they can defend themselves, but then we gotta go back up Dad.”

Tim ripped himself out of his annoyance and tapped his bo against his leg, pondering. Damian was yelling inside the cell but no one was paying attention. “Batman?” he finally asked.

There was a moment of silence. “Injuries?”

“Concussion apiece probably. D is bleeding and M’s arm is hurt but nothing immediately life threatening. We gave them medical supplies.”

Batman grunted. “Confirm. Send us the location and we can rendezvous after cleanup.”

“Understood.”

“Great!” Ravager clapped her hands again and set off down the hallway. “We’ll be right back.” Cass waved and followed.

Tim looked at the kids, still awkwardly holding his bo. Damian was glaring, but he was rapidly becoming immune. “You will release us,” he hissed. “Right now.”

“I don’t know how. And Batman said to leave you there.”

“I will find my mother and Jason!”

“Oh and you’ve been doing such a great job so far,” Tim snapped. “Unarmed and bleeding and trapped in a cell. You had your shot, now we’re handling it. Are you okay, Mara?”

“Fine,” she said, eyeing him and Damian, who was spluttering furiously. Tim ignored him.

“How’d that happen?” He nodded at her arm.

Mara glanced at it. ”We lost,” she said simply.

“What happened to the assassins that took you from the manor? Flew the plane?”

“We left them.”

“Why?” Tim pressed. God, this was like pulling teeth. Was this how Bruce felt? No wonder he could always tell when they were hiding something. This is why claiming the fifth always made you look guilty.

Mara shrugged her uninjured shoulder.

“...right.” Tim scratched the back of his head, tracking small circles with the tip of his bo. They remained in awkward silence until the girls returned, armor and weapons bundled up in their arms.

“How is cut?” Black Bat asked, passing Damian his League uniform.

“It is fine,” he said, leaning against the wall to tug on the pants.

Mara grimaced as she awkwardly maneuvered her broken arm through the sleeve of her uniform. Tim opened his mouth to stop her, but she jerked it through in one final, quick motion and his teeth clicked together in a hiss as her face spasmed. “You shouldn’t do that, it’ll make it worse.” She just shrugged again. Tim frowned. She was quiet, sure, but this level of reticence was new.

“Let’s go,” Ravager said, shoving swords, two sets of nunchaku, and a lot of knives and shuriken through the bars. “They can sort themselves out.”

“Back soon,” Black Bat said.

“Help Mara with her arm,” Tim called, tossing them an extra comm as he turned to follow the girls. The brat’s voice immediately came through his earpiece, demanding to be released, but a sharp order from Batman shut him down. Tim suppressed a smirk.

It didn’t take long to mop up the base, since Deathstroke had been tearing through the place like a hurricane before they even landed. Tim gingerly stepped over a puddle of blood, not looking too closely because ignorance was bliss in this situation, and looked up to see the man himself staring at him. He faltered, hands tightening on his bo.

“Um...hi?”

Deathstroke grunted and turned away. “We haven’t breached the control room yet,” he said, voice coming double through Tim’s comm. “The second we do there’s a chance this place will come crashing down around our ears.”

“On my way,” Batman grunted. He finished transferring the computer’s contents to a flash drive and tucked it away in his utility belt. A different flash drive ensured that a virus Oracle made would destroy the originals and infect any device that tried to connect with them. Batman had no doubt that whoever was in charge of this operation had backups, likely on another closed server, but that didn’t mean he had to make it easy for them.

Nightwing looked up from the next room as he passed, but Batman gestured for him to continue working on the other computers. With the number of people on their team, and the impressive abilities of every individual, he was confident they would be able to manage. Besides, those computers might hold the information on Jason’s whereabouts, and he wasn’t about to lose that by rushing. Nightwing nodded and resumed his conversation with Oracle, who was either helping him locate important files or talking about tv shows again. Knowing the two of them, it was probably both. His gps led him through the maze of hallways, and he let a surge of dark satisfaction come over him at the broken and bruised bodies scattered everywhere. They had hurt his sons, and they deserved far worse. When he reached the final hallway and saw the cluster of brightly-colored figures at the end of it, he forced the satisfaction down, sinking into the professionalism that was second nature at this point.

“What is behind those doors?” he asked as he reached the group.

“Main control center,” Deathstroke said. A tremble of anger tried to rise in Batman’s stomach, but he crushed it ruthlessly. Now was not the time. Get Damian and Mara, get the information, get out of this base before it collapsed on top of them or something equally dramatic. He could be angry at the man’s games later. “Computers, security, sometimes execution chamber.” Deathstroke folded his arms. “One additional exit that I know of, through the roof, but we blocked that off before coming inside. Knowing her there’s another bolt hole somewhere, though. The entire building is on lockdown and I got the assassins your kid left hanging to torch the hangars, so most of their vehicles are gone. Chances are she’s still inside, decided to go the unconcerned route once she realized a preemptive escape was impossible. If she is still there, she’ll try to cause a distraction to make a graceful exit, but that’ll give us a chance.”

Batman filed away the slip of information. The Viper was a woman. He knew better than to think that Deathstroke had made a mistake, the man was too good for that. He was giving him hints. But why? Batman shook away the question, though externally he didn’t so much as blink. Later, deal with all of that later. “Don’t kill her,” he said. Deathstroke scoffed, but Batman raised one hand. “We need her,” he said. “We need the information she has.”

“Debatable,” Deathstroke said. “But these are your brats. I did give you a week.” A timeline that had been so thoroughly disregarded that Batman wondered why it had been given in the first place. “But be aware,” Deathstroke’s voice was vicious, “she hurt my kid too. Don’t try my patience.”

Batman nodded. It was more of a concession than he had expected. He turned to Robin and Black Bat. “Return to the chicks,” he said. It was a fitting moniker, despite its joking origins.

Robin stiffened, mouth opening, but Batman cut him off with a hard look. He would not be questioned in front of Deathstroke. Robin scowled but looked away. Black Bat cocked her head to the side, studying him, and he tried to infuse the words safe and protect into his body language. He meant it for more than just Damian and Mara. She nodded, turning and heading after Robin, who was stalking down the hall. As Batman turned back to Deathstroke, Bruce mourned that his son couldn’t read him like his daughter.

Deathstroke tilted his head, likely listening to something Batman couldn’t hear. “You too, Rose.” The breach of codenames made Batman stiffen automatically, even though he knew the title was more about the fear it installed than actual secrecy.

Ravager scowled, sword still in hand. “She hurt me. You said it yourself.”

“Yes.” Deathstroke settled his unnerving gaze on the girl. He didn’t say anything else.

Ravager huffed. “You’re making me go play with the other kids.” It seemed more like a release of frustration than an attempt to change her father’s mind. Deathstroke didn’t respond. Ravager growled, sheathing her sword in one sharp movement. “Fucking fine!” She stormed away, and Bruce felt a flicker of worry.

“Don’t worry,” Deathstroke said, turning to face the door. “Reinforcements are coming. She’ll be too busy to mess with your brats.

That did not make Bruce feel better.