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Talon takes its first steps out of Gotham’s sewers and something in it screams mistake!  

The something is better than what had screamed failure! traitor! murderer! as Grandmaster’s head dropped to the floor, and Talon had not let that stop it from cutting down more of the Court in his escape. It will not let this stop it either.

It does let itself be stopped by the child gripping its side. The child. Talon’s test. Not its first, not the first shaking form to be placed before it. They died, like Talon died, but didn’t move again. Talon thinks the first was hard. It was easy by the time they brought the child.

They’d never brought it a child before. 

“What kind of shitstain hurts kids?”

Talon was given an order. The order was wrong . The orders hadn’t been wrong for long enough that it was just Grandmaster and Owls watching, no Cobb to force it.

No Cobb to stop it—not until Talon had made it out of the maze, a tiny body pressed against it. Somehow, Talon knew it was not its first time defending one so small. 

Cobb had the advantage, a century’s experience, nothing to lose. Talon had the child.

Talon still has the child. It also has Cobb’s head. It has no place for either.

The child was gripping it tighter. Afraid. Talon does not think the words the Court lets it say will help. Instead, it hums, raising the pitch at the end and tilting its head at the child: as close to what? as it can ask.

“Where we goin’ now?” Talon can tell the child is from Gotham; can’t tell how it knows, when the child sounds nothing like the Owls, the only people of Gotham it has known. 

If the child is from Gotham, would it not have a nest there? Talon points to the city skyline.

The child burrows its head into Talon’s robes. “I don’ got a place there.”

Talon will find a place, then.

There’s something almost vindicating, seeing how shit Crime Alley still is; seeing all the other kids Bruce has failed. It’s not enough to make up for how fucking angry it makes him, kids ducking under any covered area to keep their only jacket dry, waiting out back of the cafe with the one nightshift waiter that’ll slip you a togo container if you pout just right, falling into whatever gang or bed that promises security. He’s got hate for more than Bruce; after the Pit he’s got plenty to go around (he’d had it before, hatred, bloodlust; the old anger is here still, but the increase is exponential, every slight or injustice multiplying on itself, dragging him into sickening green).

Jason isn't Bruce: he knows taking one guy down, taking them all down, doesn't mean shit if there's nothing in its place. Brucie Wayne can donate to his charities and hold his galas and say hugs not drugs—Batman can take on Joker and Two-Face and all the sickos he wants—these kids will always suffer, because real evil doesn't put on a pretty suit. If the Joker doesn't get them, the cops will, or their parents, or the fucking weather. Jason isn't Bruce: he knows that to help Gotham, you have to build something, not just give and take.

He's no saint, but in the time he isn't laying the groundwork for Bruce's lesson , he's built up what he can. Community based things, mostly; helping spread mutual aid networks and supplying the more expensive needs; encouraging underlings to volunteer with the understaffed food bank; making sure the few unofficial shelters he's cleaned up stay that way. 

The shelter he’s checking on tonight is favored by teens—the “staff” are barely out of their teens themselves, 20-somethings choosing to spend the short hours between their first and second jobs trying to make sure these street kids live long enough to do the same. 

Red Hood's enough of a name for most gangs to stay clear of what and where he claims, but he's got a decent security system set up anyway—no cameras (he's not Bruce ), just enough to let him know if he or one of his people need to step in. He doesn't bother trying to evade the motion sensors; only person the results go to is the person currently climbing through the fourth-floor window (it's not like he's gonna walk through the door . He'd rather not scare the kids out of the building when he's keeping the heat on for them).

Thinking of who his reputation doesn’t protect them from has green bubbling up inside him and he digs his gauntleted fingers into a deep bruise to temper it. Stopping the anger isn’t something he’s figured out how to do—the closest Talia came to teaching him was giving his anger a target, a focus. Pain doesn’t stop it, focus it, control it; it controls him , pulling Jason into his body and out of the Pit.

It doesn’t work one hundred percent of the time, but it works tonight, and he hunkers down to watch the front entrance. The fourth “floor” is a metal catwalk high in the back of the building (might as well make it easier on himself), only giving visibility of the double-doors and open entrance room. He’s not gonna watch any of ‘em where they’re expecting privacy.

Jason knows the brunette watching the door volunteers here most nights, has slipped extra money into her account. He can’t remember her name. Can't remember a lot of things, now, and there’s a big long list of potential causes for it, each shittier than the last. But he remembers to come here, and pay for the building, and to beat down any asshole who tries to fuck with this place.

The night’s slow, no new faces showing up that he can see, just hopefully-high schoolers taking practiced strides to their rooms with the occasional nod or smile at the staff. A handful look to have injuries, but all of them are in the later stages of healing, no fresh black eyes or bleeding noses. Good. No one’s beating them while they’re here.

Just because it’s slow doesn’t mean he relaxes; hypervigilant is his only state of being. His helmet isn't outfitted with any scanners—doesn't need to be, when he's already scanning his peripherals, taking in more information than a normal brain could process. That's how he sees it, catches what anyone else would brush off as the streetlights reflecting in the rain; in the window opposite where he'd entered, for a fraction of a second, eyes flash in the night.

If there's one thing his brain is hard-wired to notice, it's a threat . He loses the eyes as soon as he sees them but he's already moving to the window, pulling out his phone to check the outdoor motion sensors—all online, none triggered. Fuck does he wish he'd installed cameras now. Before he can hop out of the window after it, the motion sensor at the front doors goes off. He has a gun trained on the door before the knocking starts (small, whoever's knocking).

Brunette looks at the feed for the one camera—never recording, just there to preview whoever's on the front steps. Whatever she sees makes her gasp, unlocking and pulling the door open before he can shout something stupid like stop

Standing in the doorway is one of the most miserable looking kids he's ever seen. Their clothes are a parody of dirty, looking more like they took a trip in a mudpit than the grime of living rough, and the way the wet fabric hangs off them makes it painfully clear how skinny they are (and God does he wish the darkness around their throat was dirt and not bruising. He knows better).

As the volunteer (does her name start with an M, maybe?) ushers the kid in, Jason taps into the mic at the front door; it's meant for screening those outside in real-time like the camera, but the state of the kid justifies some creative liberties. The audio's muffled; by the time he's cancelled out enough noise to pick up on their conversation, the kid is asking something.

"—stay too? He wouldn't walk in with me, but I don't think he's gots a place to go neither."

"Is he around your age, d'you think?" The question makes sense—this kid can't be older than eight; if he's their size and in a similar state, he might not even make it a night out there. 

Kid shakes their head; "Bigger. He's all covered up, an' he don't talk, so I 'unno how big." Jason winces as the kid rubs their face, smearing what he really hopes is mud. "Know he's strong like a grown up though," they sniffle a little, getting teary, "an' I know he s-saved me."

God-damnit. Strong, silent protector, with a covered face? This reeks of vigilante; if Bats has taken in another fucking kid…

This time, he tries a breathing technique he thinks Alfred must have taught him, and eventually enough of the rage recedes. He's not sure that it works any better than the pain, but a voice from the past says something about agitating wounds slowing healing times and Jason isn't about to slow himself down just to get a little control. 

In his anger, he misses the end of the conversation, only focusing back in when the kid is being guided into the bathroom. Well, shit; he'd hoped to get a bit more information, like what the hell the kid was saved from (he'd put good money on those fucking eyes having something to do with it). The kid's savior is another issue; could be a vigilante, could also be a scumbag that just happened to do the right thing once, or he could just be a kid wrapped up to stay warm.

Jason's got too many questions not to go looking around (it's… Strange, to be motivated by something other than anger). He slips back out the window, dropping to a lower rooftop—there's nothing to say the guy is still around, but that doesn't mean there'll be no trace of him or the owner of the glowing eyes. 

If he had Bat-level tech, he'd have the guy's location in a few minutes of searching. Tech's been the hardest resource for him to amass, though, so he'll be looking on foot, asking around; the kid and their savior must've made an impression on someone . That, or maybe he gets lucky and the guy passed out in an alley nearby. 

… Or maybe, he gets either very lucky or very fucking unlucky , and spots a guy on the roof directly across from the shelter.

He can't say he bemoans a quick end to his search, yet he also can't say the figure perched at the edge of a roof, layered in dark fabrics, paints a particularly inviting picture (not that he does either). Deciding a closer look is in order before determining his approach, Jason props his rifle on a vent, looks through the scope—

And is greeted by reflective eyes looking back.

— 

Talon has found the child a nest (Talon threw Cobb's head into the water; remembers that something in the sewers will eat his body). Talon watches to see if the nest accepts the child, expecting this strange protective instinct to abate as soon as it gets confirmation of the child's security. Slowly, it does.

Talon approaches the blankness it is used to, but in the absence of the protectiveness—in the absence of orders, of masters—there is a feeling that prevents it from being fully numb. Talon is… confused. Confusion had never lasted for long with the Court, not without punishment. With no Court it seems to pour down with the rain.

When a large figure climbs out of the nest, Talon decides what it is meant to do next: observe them. The confusion recedes, replaced with the investigative curiosity Cobb encouraged (it. It might have had that before?), and it watches. It is not alarmed when the figure sets up a rifle. The figure doesn't even move to load it, just observes like Talon observes.

The figure is startled for a moment. Their fingers remain steady on their rifle. 

Then, the figure raises their right hand and… Waves? Talon doesn't know a meaning for the gesture outside of friendly greeting, and that meaning would not make sense. Talon does not know the figure, is not friendly with anyone.

Talon was not allowed to be friendly with anyone. Talon was not allowed to know anyone the Court did not need it to know. Without the Court, it knows the child. Maybe it could know more. Something in it remembers knowing more.

It waves back. The worst the figure can do is hurt it; it's been hurt before. 

The figure waits, and then they're storing their rifle and taking an odd path to the ground (the Court would have Talon simply jump down, its injuries healing fast enough that avoiding harm would waste time. Talon doesn't know what it would choose). They make their way across the street—a man, broad and tall, with a red metal helmet covering his head. Talon's face is covered in black cloth (not the proper black cowl and goggles it would have been dressed in for a mission, just a scrap it had torn from Cobb's clothing. The child was less scared when it covered its face).

It watches as the man looks up from the base of the building Talon is perched on, no doubt looking for his route up. Talon had found handholds in the aging brickwork and levered itself up with ease; the man jumps from atop a dumpster to grab the end of a fire escape ladder, climbing it til he's in range of the lip of the roof, making another jump to grab it and pull himself up. It wonders if the man had been made, how Talon was made.

Talon doesn't turn more than its head to the man, preferring to stay with its arms wrapped around its legs (not an advantageous position to fight. Talon doesn't know if it will have to, now that not-fighting has become a possibility). The man walks towards it, stops five meters away; his movements are slow, casual, but he carries tension in his shoulders. He looks at it, or it assumes he does, and Talon tilts its head just as it had with the child; what?

The man snorts, mutters, "like a damn dog," low enough a human might not hear it over the rain. "A little kid over there," he points to the nest, "says someone matching your description saved them. That true?"

A question. Can Talon answer? The man doesn't sound angry with Talon, but sometimes the Owls weren't angry and punished Talon anyway. This man is definitely not an Owl, clothes roughened and practical, modulated speech almost as informal as the child's had been. Talon decides the risks to an answer are minimal, and nods its head. Talon doesn't know if not-killing the child was "saving" it, but Cobb certainly would have killed the child had it not killed him first, and the child was in no physical state to survive without shelter. It feels right, that the child is safe in a nest.

The man nods, too. "Kid also said you had no place to go. That true?"

This one is harder to answer; it is true that it can no longer return to the Court, and knows no other place, and yet it had found a safe enough nest for the child in less than an hour of searching. Surely housing suitable for a talon would be even easier to find.

It settles on a nod followed by a shrug. The man huffs, shifts his feet. His hand doesn't move to a weapon. Talon stays where it is.

"Look," he starts, "if you need medical help, there's a clinic a couple blocks down that won't ask questions; otherwise, you can take your leave. I take care of things here." The man wants it to leave, wants Talon to stop watching the nest.

Something sharp and sour curls in its stomach and Talon's head lowers as it turns to face the man fully. A hand twitches to his thigh holster. No weapon is drawn. Talon is always drawn.

Talon shakes its head: points to the nest, points to its eye, points to the nest again. Talon will watch the nest. The man can watch, too, but he doesn't know the Court, he can't keep it safe.

A growl comes from the man, layered and warped by his mask; Talon raises its shoulders, unfurls its limbs to be bigger. That is anger, that is the snarl before a fist would meet Talon's face. Yet the man does not move forward—he moves up-and-down, his shoulders and chest, audibly pushing air in and out. Talon continues to hold its breath.

Each time the man exhales, some of the danger-anger-fight leaves his body, and neither of his hands have grabbed a weapon. With the Court, Talon would attack first, eliminate the possibility of a weapon being drawn (it hadn't at first, it thinks, even as it remembers never fighting any other way). Talon now, waits.

There is still anger in his voice when the man speaks, but a lighter sort of anger, one that doesn't make Talon want to puff up or run. "I can't have you this close to the kids when I don't know if you're safe." The man thinks he'll hurt the child? Hurt other children?

The Court had thought he would too.

Talon throws the man's growl back at him, wants to scream that he doesn't know what is safe, not like it knows. He steps forward; Talon's growl twists up into a whine. Why would he think it would hurt them? Why won't he let it keep the nest safe?

Hands go up—with a weapon? Did the man grab—no, his hands are flat and empty, his legs taking a step back.

"Hey, 'sokay, we can… Shit, we can figure somethin' out?"