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Barbara Gordon had long since grown accustomed to phone calls to her secure line at all hours of the night, but she had her phone programmed with a special ring for certain numbers. One of them was Dinah, of course, Helena had her own ring, and she wouldn’t have admitted under torture that another of them was Dick.

Still another was calling her now, her phone giving out a low insistent chirp, and Babs pulled herself away from her current research into Guyot-Perrin’s projects to answer it with her usual clipped, “Oracle.” Given whose ring tone that was, they would both know her concern was far more than professional.

A beat of silence, and Babs closed her eyes, knowing which of her girls was on the line just by that hesitation. Oh, Dinah and Helena were hers, too, her agents, her friends, but these were her girls. One of them as close to her heart as a daughter. “It is Shiva,” Cass finally said, her voice hushed.

Babs had to literally bite her tongue to keep from saying, Come home. One, Cass would take it personally, thinking Babs didn’t trust her to handle this. And two, she wouldn’t do it. All she could accomplish was to make Cass feel guilty about disobeying orders. “You’re certain?” she asked.

“Saw her.” Cass paused, and added, “She rules here.”

Babs leaned her head into her hands and only let herself curse in her mind, borrowing a few of Dick’s pungent circus-slang expressions for the purpose. “Do not engage, Batgirl. I’ll do some further research on this end first. You need to know what you’re jumping into.”

“I will search, too,” Cass replied.

She couldn’t say no , so Babs told her, “Be careful. Absolute secrecy.”

And imagined she could hear a smile in the girl’s voice as Cass said, “Yes.”

Another pause as Cass handed the phone off, and Steph came on the line. “Hey, Babs, we’re gonna play it cool. We don’t know what Shiva’s plans are, just that she’s here, and there’s a new wave of radicalism sweeping through the camps further south. My guess – and it’s a purely unscientific hunch based on some hearsay – is that the more extreme elements of the group up here are leaving because Shiva doesn’t play according to their rules.”

“Probably a good hunch,” Babs admitted, queuing up search programs on her computer to track any activity under any of Talia’s known aliases. If Shiva was making a bid to take over part of the League of Shadows, sooner or later Talia would show up to deal with it. And she didn’t want either of her girls in the middle of that. “I’m pulling all the data I can. You two, try to keep to passive information-gathering. I don’t want to spook Shiva.”

All the while she was trying to decide who best to send over to Libya. Dinah and Helena were both highly trained operatives, both adept at infiltrating enemy organizations … and both currently occupied in Gotham City itself. The power vacuum caused by Black Mask landing in jail still wasn’t settled, though with Scarecrow in Arkham now, the loose ends in the city were currently being tied up by Two-Face. Penguin had quietly consolidated some of them into his own ranks, but Cobblepot hadn’t made any overt moves in a while. And Joker was still out there somewhere, planning something. He was always planning something.

It was the kind of situation where, no matter how much data Babs was able to gather, nothing would make sense until some patterns began to emerge.

Steph, meanwhile, chuckled at her choice of words. “I know what you mean, but the concept of me spooking someone like Shiva… Now I wanna jump out of an alleyway and yell ‘Boo!’ just to see what happens. Even though I know she’d probably just flatten me. The look on her face would be worth it.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Babs said, and heard Cass simply say ‘No’ from somewhere near the phone.

Sighing, Steph said, “It was a joke , guys. I’m blonde, but I’m not that dumb.”

Babs heard Cass’ voice a lot closer to the phone, and her tone was suddenly fierce. “Not stupid.”

“Okay, okay,” Steph replied, with a little laugh. “Ease down, I surrender – I have an above-average IQ.”

Smiling a little, Babs hazarded a guess. “She won’t let you trash-talk yourself.”

Another heavy sigh, the kind only teenagers were capable of. “You’re right, Batgirl is my personal self-image police. Which is ridiculous.”

“Good,” Babs said softly. Someone needed to stop Steph from agreeing with everyone who spoke ill of her. And Cass was just stubborn enough to make it stick no matter how many times she had to interrupt. Babs continued, “I’m going to let Batman know, but things in Gotham are highly unsettled just now. I can’t send someone right away.”

Cass cleaned close to the phone, and said, “We will watch.”

Babs heard the faintest little noise, something that sounded like a smooch, and smiled. Trust Steph to deal with Cass getting in her space by kissing her on the cheek. Steph added, “And that’s all we’re doing, for now. I’ll keep you posted, O.”

“I appreciate it,” Babs replied. “Take care of yourselves. Call in at least once daily; if you miss a day I’ll assume you’re compromised and send someone to extract you, no matter how short it leaves us here.”

After they signed off, she sat there staring at the computer screen and not seeing it for several long moments. Dinah and Helena had both gradually taught her to trust her people in the field. And she could trust Cass and Steph not to endanger each other or civilians; the only thing she feared was them endangering themselves. Cass was driven to confront her mother, Babs knew. Sandra Wu-San had walked away shortly after her birth, and never tried to contact her. The few times they’d crossed paths, she seemed more interested in Cass’ martial arts skills than anything about her as a person.

Sighing, Babs picked up the phone again to call Bruce. Internal League of Shadows politics weren’t really their purview, but with the girls in the region – and civilian repercussions factored in as well – they’d have to get involved eventually. The only question was when. And how bad the fallout would be.

 

 

The last few weeks had been an absolute circus for Kala, still not used to being the main focus of the tour. Thank God, the tour itself was keeping the industry reporters away, especially since she’d been ordered to pretty much leave it to the label to comment. For now, she was fine with that. She had more than enough to keep herself busy just learning the new routines that had been necessitated by her being the only voice the crowd heard. It had always been challenging, doing this, but Kala was realizing more and more just how much of all of the work had been shared by she and Sebast, not all of which was on-stage. Yeah, it was a struggle to never have a moment alone, but then actually being alone was sometimes worse. Too much time to think, too much space in the loft, no need to inch out of bed in the morning to go sun-up. And no non-stop chatter, no constant laughter, no arguments over who got the toothpaste first. Even the thunder of the arenas didn’t dispel that ghost, especially when she could still feel him dancing beside her even now.

After missing Jay for almost a week, Kala forced her to make excuses to the boys and stole a night to come over. Morgan had almost seemed relieved when she said she needed a night out, all the boys seeming to get the need for her restlessness. Of course they would assume she was going to him and they were absolutely right, she thought, shooting off a quick text. Once in the air, Kala oriented herself straight for Gotham.

She caught him just in time for patrol, using her key to let herself into the bunker. Jay was armoring up for the night, but the moment she came in, he stopped long enough to kiss her. “Business as usual?” Kala asked, when he let her up for air.

“Standard patrol,” he told her, and tugged on her bound-up hair playfully. Kala swatted at him lightly, and blurred into her uniform. Sometimes it almost felt as if she truly was becoming someone else when she suited up, all of the stress and uncertainty vanishing at the sound of the zipper’s pull. And lately, it was the best feeling in the world. Feeling eyes on her, Kala turned as Jay shot her a grin. “You know, I wouldn’t mind watching that at normal human speed.”

“And if you did, we wouldn’t get out on patrol in time,” Kala retorted, not even trying to hide her smile. And yeah, spending the time with Jay helped, too. They’d taken to flying most places – Jay just claimed he didn’t eat for three hours before patrol, so her crazier maneuvers wouldn’t result in rains of vomit on the unsuspecting citizens below – and Kala took his arm. “Ready, Red?”

“For you? Always,” he laughed, and she rolled her eyes as they took off, picking a rooftop to lurk on.

They ran a typical Bowery patrol, drugs and gangs and robberies, oh my. By now, it was almost relaxing, a rhythm Kala could fall into just as easily as the dance routines for her most popular songs. Everyone in the East End knew Red Hood, so their typical method was for Jay to take point, and just as the bad guys realized they had a problem, Kala would come swooping in. Between the two of them, they tended to mop things up pretty quickly. For her, this was a welcome escape.

 

 

Of course, things in the Bowery rarely went according to plan. Jay and Kala busted into a drug deal, and there turned out to be reinforcements on the way. He dropped two guys, not reaching for his gun yet. No need to waste his non-lethal rounds, that shit was more expensive than good old-fashioned lead. He could hear men groaning in pain as Kala dealt with them, and then a sudden whack! That had a little too much metallic crunch in it, and he knocked out the man in front of him, turning to see what was up.

Some fool had gotten lucky, gotten a grip on Kala, and full-body-smashed her into the hood of a car. Jay’s vision went red, and he drew his gun, but one of the guys closer to him took advantage of his distraction and tried to stab him. One rubber bullet to the thigh, and a boot to the face, convinced him to quit.

Meanwhile the guy who’d slammed Kala gave a barking laugh. “Caught the Blur! Now let’s see what’s under that uniform, little girl.”

Jay would’ve shot him, but suddenly he couldn’t see him. At least, not until he was lying on his gut, stunned, with his hands and feet zip-tied, all of which had evidently taken about a second. Kala stood over him, smirking, and quipped, “Normally I like forceful men, but I have a prior engagement, and you seem a little tied up right now. Sorry.”

“Oh, man, that’s terrible,” Jay groaned, still laughing. They wiped out the rest of the men, leaving them bagged and tagged for GCPD, and Jay shook his head at Kala. “Really awful. Who do you think you are? Robin?”

“Guilty by association,” she teased.

Jay smirked, and zip-lined to the next rooftop, still looking for trouble. Kala fetched up beside him, laughing at her own wit, and he aimed a punch to her shoulder. She caught his fist, her smile lighting up to supernova levels.

Glancing down, Jay didn’t see anything that needed their attention. At least, not just now. “Wanna spar?” he asked.

God, don’t tell me you’re bored already,” Kala laughed.

“You’re the one grinning,” Jay pointed out, and gave in. Why not? They hadn’t had many opportunities to train, lately. Call this a little al fresco exercise.

He swung, she dodged, he wrapped her arm in a chain, and they traded blows and blocks in an exhilarating rhythm. Kala’s blood was up, she met him at every turn, even when he spun her around and yanked her close. She just reached up, grabbed his shoulders, and flipped herself over him. With the side benefit of pulling his own chain across his throat.

Jay laughed out loud, letting go of the other end of it, reaching back to grapple her. Kala was stronger, when she wanted to be, but she was laying off the powers for the moment. He threw them both to the ground, scuffling and growling at each other, but eventually he got her pinned. “I could always hover and dump you on your ass,” Kala pointed out, but she looked entirely too happy right where she was.

“You could, but you’re not,” Jay pointed out, and popped his helmet off to kiss her.

Just like every time, the world went electric with that kiss, his nerves humming and zinging. This was Kala, by some crazy twist of fate a woman like this liked playing these kinds of ridiculous rough games with him, and holy shit Jay must’ve done something really right in a previous life to be getting this lucky.

Not that he was actually getting lucky. Not right now, anyway. Babs’ digitized voice spoke in their comms. “Hood, Blur, if you’re not too preoccupied, we’ve got a silent alarm six blocks north of your position.”

Both of them groaned. “Your timing is impeccable, as always,” Kala said, with a rueful smile for Jay.

“No rest for the righteous,” he agreed, and got up, yanking the helmet back on. “Do you just get off on cockblocking me, Oracle, or is it the universe conspiring against me?”

“Little of both,” Babs replied with a chuckle. “I didn’t schedule the break-in, but I do enjoy needling the pair of you.”

“It’s how you show you love us,” Kala said dryly. “C’mon, Jaybird, let’s go bust some bad guys.”

“Dunno if I’d call it love,” he said, his voice a little wary. “Sounds more like she’s on a power-trip, to me.”

“If knowledge is power, she’s the most powerful person in town,” Kala replied, smirking. “Scratch that – most powerful person on the continent.”

“Don’t damn me with faint praise,” Babs laughed.

Jay just rolled his eyes. “Enough, enough, let’s go. Don’t build up her ego anymore, K, she’ll turn into Batman.”

The two men breaking into a payday advance shop didn’t know why their attackers were laughing, but Kala and Jay managed to wrap them up despite their amusement.

The rest of the night wore on, too busy for play. Toward the end of patrol, they stopped a scuffle between rival gangs; there was a lot of that going on lately, with Sionis still in jail and Crane in Arkham. Someone always had to try to be top dog, and it looked like Dent was making a bid this time, resulting in clashes with everyone else’s men. There were also more ordinary gangs, not led by nutjobs in masks, although they tended to come off badly against the rogues’ men. And that was before even mentioning the organized crime from old families like the Falcones. It was all a constantly-evolving mess, no stability at all, and in the Bowery was the worst of it.

Jay put a stop to what he could, and in the midst of tonight’s ugly brawl, he thought he saw some familiar faces among Dent’s men. His helmet’s eyepieces could record photos, and he took a few to compare later. Then he and Kala finally signed off.

Back at his apartment, Kala headed upstairs to take her shower while Jay washed off down in the bunker. She usually took a little longer than he did – girl stuff – so he ran the photos he’d taken through an image matching program.

There were hits on three of them. Two had ties to the Falcones. The third was one of Penguin’s. Jay frowned, looking them over, and read up on their known offenses in the police records and the things they were suspected of in the Bat-computer’s database. It took a little longer than it should’ve – all three were low-level thugs, with most of their crimes being relatively minor. Their rap sheets were impressively long, however. Just how many times did a guy have to get arrested for robbery before he admitted he was no damn good at it?

Jay sighed, closed the files … and saw the time. Honestly he was surprised Kala hadn’t come down here to pry him off the computer. Unless she’d gotten pissed at having to wait, and simply flown off. Chagrined, he headed upstairs.

Where he found Kala laying across the bed, and already asleep. Jay watched her for a few minutes, smiling to himself; she was just wearing one of his shirts and her panties, and they were cute panties. He’d seen that pair before, black with a set of big cat-eyes across the butt, and Jay had teased Kala that she should’ve bought a pair for Selina. She’d rolled her eyes at him for that.

She was the only woman he’d been with who would wear something like that. It was impossible to imagine any of them in something this whimsical. Rose came the closest, but she had a sharper sense of humor than Kala. Jay had seen her in a tank top with ‘You say ‘Bitch’ like it’s a bad thing’ across the front, but she didn’t go in for cutesy underwear. Then again, he shouldn’t be surprised – that one night in the study he’d seen Kala in Superman pajama pants and a Cheshire cat shirt. Charming whimsy was definitely her thing.

Tonight she’d laid down with the lights on, and his copy of West with the Night was in her hand. Kala had obviously intended to wait up for him, she’d just lost the battle against sleep before he got here.

It’d be rude to wake her, and besides, sex wasn’t the only reason they spent time together. So Jay put the book away, turned out the light, and carefully eased the blankets out from under her. As soon as he touched her, Kala murmured something in her sleep, grabbed his hand, and tugged him closer. He laughed, and kissed her shoulder. “Roll over so I can get the covers over you, K.”

She blinked owlishly, clearly not awake, and rolled, letting him pull the sheets up over her even as he tucked himself in beside her. Kala immediately snuggled into his side, and he chuckled, “See you in the morning, Sleeping Beauty.” Her only answer was another wordless mumble, drawing his arm around her tighter. Jay fell asleep with a smile on his lips.

A few hours later, he woke muzzily at some sound. It wasn’t immediately identifiable, and not especially threatening, but it was a sound in his vicinity, and he’d trained himself to always be alert. The first thing Jay saw was a bleary image of glowing eyes moving around.

His reaction to that was automatic, gun drawn from beneath the pillow and the safety clicked off, already pointed at the eyes even while he was blinking and squinting to try and figure out what the fuck was in here with him. The eyes suddenly disappeared, and now he had no idea where the hell the thing was. A surge of adrenaline sharpened his vision, and just as he was taking the slack out of the trigger and preparing to fire on a last known position, he was able to see Kala staring at him in shock. She was standing near the foot of the bed, a glass of water in her hand. “Jay?!” she squeaked.

“Somethin’ over there,” he snapped, sitting up with his heart racing. How the hell could something get in without Kala hearing it? She turned toward the threat, and the eyes were back…

…on the back of her panties, as a matter of fact. At some point she’d taken the shirt off, sleeping in just the panties, and without his shirt to cover her butt, the freakin’ cat eyes glowed in the dark.

“Jesus fuck on a glowstick,” he groaned, clicking the safety back on. “It’s just your damn cat panties, K.”

What?” she said, turning back to stare at him.

Now that he wasn’t freaking out over some fucking cryptid in his apartment, it was kinda funny, and Jay laughed. “The eyes glow in the dark, K. Looked like some kinda animal in here. I’m not really awake, y’know.”

Kala crossed her arms. “And you went on alert because of that? You almost shot me in the ass just because you saw a pair of glow-in-the-dark eyes?!”

At that thought, Jay felt laughter bubbling up inside. “Good thing I didn’t. It’d be a crime to put a bullet in that sweet Kryptonian ass. Glow in the dark eyes and all.” The look on her face made him lose it, and Jay was snorting and laughing uncontrollably. Almost shot my own girlfriend in the dark. Forget the old thought-she-was-a-burglar excuse. Officer, I thought there was a glowing-eyed monster in here so I shot at it!

He was laughing so hard that Kala eventually pounced on him in half-joking outrage, and they wrestled and tumbled around on the bed until Jay entirely forgot to laugh.

 

 

The boarding pass said ‘Irena Dubrovna’, and the woman carrying it had a passport and credit cards in that name as well. She gave the gate agent a charming smile as she boarded the early-morning British Airways flight from Metropolis International Airport to London Heathrow, then found her seat by the window. First class included coffee, breakfast, and an amenities bag from a luxury skincare brand. Her seat folded down to a flat bed, and they offered designer loungewear to snooze in. Not that she intended to do more than catnap on this flight.

She’d only be in London for three days, enough time to stop by a museum or two, and pay a visit to a particular privately-owned flat. She had to be careful, of course; the museums shouldn’t even notice anything amiss until long after she’d flown home, taking advantage of British Airway’s fancy new afternoon tea service at forty thousand feet. As for the flat, she didn’t know when its owner would next stop in – this was something of a long shot, but if it worked out, she’d thoroughly enjoy it.

Touching down in London just as night fell, she borrowed a car from the rental agency and went to look up the address she’d found after much diligent searching – and a few pricey bribes. As she drove, she reflected that this was twice now that she’d traveled across the Atlantic to up the ante on their little competition. If it kept on, she’d have to keep things local; or expect her rival to do some traveling, too.

As a matter of fact, she was hoping the other woman was traveling right now. All anyone knew for sure was that she wasn’t in Paris anymore, but Talia al Ghul was damn difficult to find. There was no evidence to indicate she was in London, but it’d be terrible luck if she turned out to be home for this visit. The woman calling herself Irena chuckled quietly; this was one time she didn’t want to play cat and mouse.

She scouted the location carefully, then took a hotel room a few blocks away. Once it was fully dark, she unpacked her luggage. Some of what she’d brought was mere camouflage, intended to make the baggage agents blush – or gossip about her, instead of wondering who might be traveling around with a catsuit and a bullwhip in her luggage. All it took was a couple of pairs of handcuffs, a blindfold, and a couple of other whips to make them draw all the wrong conclusions.

Some of her more esoteric accessories, she’d brought in her carry-on bag, but goggles and lock picks could be disguised. No one had questioned the little tubes tucked into her bag; the TSA set rules about how many ounces of liquid she could bring, not what kind they could be. In uniform, she opened the window and breathed in the night. The Irena identity was left behind in the hotel, and Catwoman set out across the roofs of London.

Selina cased the flat very carefully. Standard security features, and then some decidedly non-standard ones as well. It took her a patient hour to bypass the sensors, cameras, and alarms, and finally step across the threshold, carefully navigating a series of tripwires and infrared beams designed to catch anyone who defeated the electronic system. Once in, she listened first, her nerves strung tight as few jobs ever managed to do, but the place sounded empty. It felt empty, too, and she had a good sixth sense for that.

That was no excuse to slack off, and Selina tiptoed further into the flat, still on high alert. She decided she liked the furnishings; a definite sense of style, given to deep colors and interesting textures. It was a space she could’ve curled up in with one of the many books in shelves along the wall, and a cup of tea from the fine china in the kitchen.

Doing so would probably be extremely dangerous, though, since Selina managed to find a weapon within reach of every seat in the place. The big armchair with an embroidered throw draped across it? That had a gun tucked into one arm, and half a dozen throwing knives in the other. There was a sword under the edge of the bar. And even in the bathroom, one of the vanity drawers was hermetically sealed to keep moisture away from the pistol and dagger hidden there. Selina shook her head; this looked more like paranoia than preparedness to her. Then again, assassins probably had a different idea of preparedness from almost anyone else.

She glanced in the bathroom and found a deep soaking tub alongside a shower stall with one of those fancy shower heads that sprayed from three different heights. On a rack to one side were high-end shampoo and conditioner, in a warm sort of amber and clove scent, and soaps and lotions that smelled of persimmons and spice. Just as she expected, every product in here was top of the line. Selina checked out the medicine cabinet, too, finding nothing much of interest, and took note of the face cream her target used.

In the end, she couldn’t resist detouring to the bedroom, smirking a little at the tall four-poster bed frame with sheer curtains. Very dramatic, and Selina sprawled across it, looking up to where the fabric gathered together at the ceiling. Very comfortable, too, and Selina murmured to herself, “This would be a bad time to pull a Goldilocks.”

She stood up again, stretched, and padded out, detouring among the bookshelves. There were a few small objets d’art there, just the kind of priceless understated antiquities Catwoman had made a name for herself liberating and reselling, but in the end she decided not to steal anything from Talia al Ghul.

Leaving something behind was so much more fun, and had the benefit of being unexpected. Now she could conclude her other business in London, fly back to the States, and wait for her little addition to be discovered.

‘Kanine Boot Kamp’, indeed.

 

 

Steph kept herself glued to Cass’ side when they went out. They weren’t trying to infiltrate the main compound anymore, just gather whatever intelligence they could on the periphery. That grated on both of them, feeling useless when they knew where Shiva was, but Steph had to admit that it was dangerous as hell to try and get close to her.

Disguises, at least, were easy; all they had to do was wear farrashia, the white silk covering that some older, traditional Libyan women still wore outside the home. It hid everything but their eyes, and with a little makeup to create the appearance of crows-feet, no one gave them more than a passing glance. Even other women, many of them dressed in Western-style clothes with hijabs that complimented their style, dismissed the pair as old-fashioned ‘aunties’. Steph discovered that the light fabric seemed to help keep the sun’s heat off her, too.

They didn’t learn much in the markets, or by loitering near the coffee shops, but that seemed to mean that Shiva was keeping her people very quiet. Steph figured that was a good thing, since it meant less impact on the civilians. Most of the people here were just trying to live their lives, get an education, do their jobs, take care of their families, just like anywhere else. The conversations she eavesdropped on were mostly about dating, or work, or what had been on television the night before.

One or two, though, seemed more important. Hushed phrases that could be code words, men who automatically glanced towards the exits whenever they entered a room. It was tantalizing, but nothing concrete, nothing to hint at what Shiva was actually doing.

Cass believed her mother was trying to take over the whole League of Shadows. Steph wondered about that. Why would Shiva want it? Power and prestige, of course, but the way Cass talked about her mother, Shiva wasn’t prone to that kind of self-aggrandizing behavior. She was a lone wolf more than a leader.

The daily check-ins to Babs were frustrating, having to tell her they had nothing new. She praised them for their caution, and noted that the refugee camps they’d left seemed to have stabilized. Whatever was going on in Libya, the radical factions Shiva had displaced had apparently been absorbed into other organizations, or neutralized. Steph had been glad at first, until Cass had looked at her and gravely shaken her head. “What’s bad about them knocking off all the violence?” she’d asked.

“Under the Demon’s command,” Cass had replied solemnly. And yeah, that would explain why things had quieted down. If Ra’s al Ghul had noticed trouble brewing and brought the rebellious factions to heel, it might mean he was headed here to confront Shiva.

Both of them tended to think in terms of Ra’s. At the moment, he was far away from them, in one of his estates in Manchuria. Little though Steph and Cass knew it, they did have problems close by, and with someone who’d also figured out the trick of using a farrashia for disguise.

Very close by. Cass had been watching a cafe where one of Shiva’s men was playing chess, wondering if the meeting was what it appeared to be, or something more. Steph had gone up to a stall nearby selling desserts to pick up some magrood. The date-filled cookies had quickly become one of Steph’s favorites, but the seller was out of them, so she got ghreyba with almonds instead.

If she’d had any idea that Talia al Ghul had been there ten minutes ago and bought the last of the magrood, Steph’s reports to Babs would’ve gotten a lot more interesting.

 

Chapter Text

Sebast woke up ungodly early in the guest bedroom he’d taken to sleeping in, which was usually Ned’s, and realized that tomorrow was Kala’s birthday. It hit him like a fist in the gut, and he laid there for a long time, staring at the ceiling, feeling utterly and miserably alone. He’d been at every one of her birthday parties since she turned fifteen, from the big parties at home with her whole family, to the times on the road when they’d just had a cake on the tour bus.

Part of him wanted to run to the airport, buy a plane ticket, and show up to the tour with a cake and a card and an apology. Most of him knew a simple apology wasn’t going to cut it, at this point.

Still, he had the tour itinerary saved in his phone. He could at least mail her the present he’d bought for her back in August, and kept hidden away here. Kala was bad about snooping for presents, despite being outraged if anyone else did it, and so he’d hidden the small box in the one place she’d never look: her own closet.

The moment he opened the door, he smelled her perfume on her clothes, a breath of candied violets faint and sweet, and he caught himself, gripping the jamb. It was like burying his face in Kala’s shoulder after a long day, and right then he’d’ve given his left hand just to have her put her arms around him and pat his shoulder and mock him gently for tiring so soon. Sebast squeezed his eyes shut, and those were not tears. It was just some dust in the closet.

He opened them again, and the first thing he saw was one of his own shirts. Sebast laughed weakly; you knew Kala loved you if she stole your clothes. He’d seen her wearing enough of his shirts and jackets to find it charming, and sometimes she slept in his dress shirts. That was a good look on her, and when he’d teased her about it, she’d told him it was like a hug she could wear all night.

Mi Kala,” Sebast sighed, and pushed the shirts aside. In the back of the closet were stacks of shoe boxes, and he searched through them for the pair of summer sandals in which he’d hidden her gift. She might get crafty enough to look around the top of her closet, currently a jumble of spare pillows, folded blankets, and at least one velvet top hat, but Kala would never think to look among the shoes, and the sandals wouldn’t get worn until next spring.

He found the right shoebox, opened it, and found the small wrapped box inside. A tiny thing, really, but he’d thought he could pick up a couple more bigger, splashier gifts before the day arrived. This, though, this had spoken Kala’s name to him when he saw it in a store window. A big flashy necklace had caught his eye, something neither of them would wear, but right below it had been this: a silver ring in the design of a peacock, the fanned tail across the top of the finger with small sapphires as its feathers, the bird’s head wrapped around, its eye a tiny ruby. Kala liked to tease him, calling him a vain Goth peacock, and the bird looked a little smug somehow.

Sebast had gone in, found out it was even in Kala’s ring size, and bought it on the spot. It hadn’t been cheap, a custom one of a kind design, but he had the money, and where else was he gonna spend it?

Now he looked at the tiny box and felt a wave of melancholy. Even in August, things were already getting weird between them, but he remembered the delight he’d felt picking out the ring, and how he’d looked forward to giving it to her. Kala would love it, it was just the kind of in-joke she’d appreciate, and the beauty of it would appeal to her, too. He’d found it hard to wait for her birthday, wanting to give it to her early so he could see the look on her face when she saw it.

As he stared at the box, reminiscing, a new thought floated across his mind. You bought her a ring.

Sebast frowned, wondering, and the thought came back insistently. This would’ve confused her even more. No wonder you’re confused. You went and bought the girl a ring . Not diamonds, but close enough. What else would everyone think?

All of a sudden rage swept over him. It hadn’t been a ring like that , it had just been a gift, something beautiful for his favorite girl. Why the fuck did everyone expect more, demand more, until he and Kala couldn’t find their own way under the weight of everyone else’s opinions of their relationship? Why couldn’t he just buy her a piece of pretty jewelry without second-guessing himself? And why the hell was he so damn miserable now wishing he’d given it to her before? Would that have turned the tide somehow, would it have changed things?

In miserable frustration, Sebast flung a punch at the wall, not caring if it hurt. At least that pain was something he could do something about. What was inside, chewing up his heart, couldn’t be touched with bandages and painkillers.

To his immense shock, his fist went right through the back wall of Kala’s closet, as if it was only the thickness of cardboard.

 

 

Kala woke up when her phone buzzed, and tried to be careful moving to answer it, but Jay stirred anyway. When she saw whose name was on the screen, he must’ve felt the sudden tension in her body, because he woke up all the way. She sat up, easing away from him. It didn’t feel right to take this call with his arms around her. He blinked sleep from his eyes and looked at her, and Kala tried to hold herself together. “It’s Sebast,” she said in a small voice, and Jay nodded, sitting up beside her.

Kala took a deep breath, and answered the call. “Hi,” she said softly.

Hi,” Sebast said, and his voice sounded … strange. “Where are you?”

Portland,” Kala lied miserably.

Sure you are,” Sebast said with a low chuckle.

Sebast…” she pleaded.

No, you know what, let’s not start like that,” he said suddenly. “Hi. I miss you. We said a lot of shit to each other the last time I saw you, but it doesn’t mean I miss you any less.”

I miss you too,” she whispered, acutely conscious of Jay sitting beside her. His apartment was quiet enough that he was probably hearing both sides of the conversation.

Then how about you tell me the truth, huh?” He sounded more cajoling than accusatory, and Kala bit her lip. Not this again.

I told you about Jay,” she replied.

Not about him,” Sebast continued. “About the rest of it. Tell me the truth about everything, Kala.”

A horrifying thought leapt into her mind, and she gave a laugh that sounded and felt like a sob. “Sebast, I don’t know the truth about everything .”

Everything about you then.”

Again, she bit her lip, her heart pounding. Part of her wanted to just throw all of it at him, part of her was afraid of what Jay would think, what he was already thinking, and part of her wanted to hang up the phone and hide under the pillows for about a year. “Sebast, no more games. Tell me what you want.”

Well, I started out this morning wanting to give you the birthday present I bought you back in August,” Sebast said, in a horrible attempt at joviality. Kala flinched, thinking of the present she’d given Jay that same month, and Jay reached out to touch her back. She flinched again from the contact, and he subsided, waiting. Sebast continued, “So I went into your closet where I hid it, because you’re terrible about gifts, querida, and I knew you wouldn’t look there. Is this giving you a hint? Something you wanna tell me, Kala?”

Sebast,” she whimpered, her throat constricted, her heart trying to pound out of her chest. The old Blur uniform was in the back of her closet, hidden behind a false panel, and he had to have found it somehow. I should’ve thrown it out, it’s too cut-up to pass for regular clothes, I should’ve thrown it out, oh my God how could I be so stupid…

Tell me,” Sebast said quietly. “I’d rather you tell me than me have to drag it out of you. C’mon, Kala.”

She took a deep breath, let it out shakily, her whole body trembling on the verge of tears. “I’m the Blur,” she finally squeaked, and heard Jay gasp beside her.

A pause, and Sebast said in more normal tones, “Thank you. That explains a lot.”

Kala sat there, her knees drawn up, curled over them and focused on just breathing. In a way, this reminded her of the time she’d broken her arm. Being a goofy little kid, jumping out of a swing and trying to fly, then landing to a snap more felt than heard and thinking for a few minutes that it couldn’t be that bad. Could it? And then the pain came, and she’d screamed, and eventually Mom had had to explain to the school why Superman had flown down for a little girl’s broken arm.

Now she was hanging in that cold hollow moment between the break, with her secret finally out, and the inevitable pain that followed.

Sebast sighed in her ear. “You’re not Superman’s god-daughter, are you? You’re his daughter . Madre de Dios, Kala, that’s a big fucking secret to keep from me.”

I know,” she whimpered, and here was the pain, right here as her heart broke, because surely he’d stay away now that he knew. She wasn’t even fully human…

Eight years, mi Kala. We’ve lived together the last three and a half. I cut my hair when we were sixteen, and I had boys writing poetry about it, all so your brother could sneak on a plane and go save your ass – and Elise knows, doesn’t she? Things changed with her and Jason after that New Year’s. We’ve been together through everything, I hold you after your nightmares and you hold me up when my parents are assholes. You steal my clothes and I steal your food and we watch bad horror movies after every breakup. And all this time, you never thought to tell me? What, you didn’t trust me, you thought I’d run to the newspapers or something?” He laughed bitterly. “Is that what it is?”

No, Sebast, I know you better than that,” Kala said desperately.

Do you?” he asked softly. “Do I know you? At all?”

Hot tears forced their way between her lashes, her eyes tightly closed. “I didn’t think you’d tell. I thought you’d leave .”

Little late for that now, isn’t it, Kala?” Sebast said softly.

She caught her breath on a sob, scrunching herself down into a tight little ball of misery. “Sebast, please … I wanted to, but we don’t tell anyone .”

Oh yeah? What about your boyfriend, does he know?” he asked sharply.

Kala made a small, horrified noise. If she said no , she’d be lying, and she couldn’t lie to Sebast anymore. But if she said yes , she’d have to explain why he knew, and that meant giving up Jay’s identity. She couldn’t do that, ever.

Sebast just laughed. “Why am I not surprised?”

It’s not what you think,” Kala protested desperately. “I don’t tell anyone, I never have. He just … I can’t do this, Sebast.”

A beat of silence, in which she feared she’d said too much, and Sebast continued quickly, “Does your sister know? What about your stepmom and stepdad?”

Of course Kristin doesn’t know, she’s just a kid,” Kala told him, her voice hollow and strained. “Lana and Daddy Richard … they found out when I was six, and Luthor kidnapped us to get to Dad. There was no way to hide it when my brother and I were on a kryptonite island, Sebast. My Dad jumped out of an airplane, after he got stabbed saving us, after getting shot saving Mom, he jumped out of Daddy Richard’s plane and went and lifted a whole island of kryptonite out of our atmosphere. No, Sebast, no one told them, they watched it happen and kinda picked things up as they went along. Hell, no one ever told me and Jase, we figured it out ourselves. Mom kept it a secret and lied to everyone about who our father was, made everyone think she’d gotten knocked up by a one-night stand in Paris, because the minute Luthor figured out there was a chance we were Superman’s, he took us both for bait.”

Sebast fell quiet, and Kala heard Jay whisper, “Jesus fuck .”

She went on, with the secret out between them it was like pulling the sluice gates on a dam, and everything she’d wished she could’ve told Sebast came pouring out. “My aunts and uncles don’t know, my cousins don’t know, Uncle Perry doesn’t know and that’s one hell of an exclusive, isn’t it? The only person who was ever told was Nana, and only because she’d watched us developing superpowers. She knew, and she was furious with Mom and wasn’t going to go along with the story Mom told everyone else because it wasn’t fair to that nice young man in the City department, so they had to tell her. Nobody else was ever told, Sebast, but I … I’ve wanted to tell you every day for years. Especially after Nevada.”

More silence, from Sebast. “Jesus, woman, and I thought I had the whole story.”

You had more of it than anyone outside the immediate family,” Kala replied. “I told you as much as I could. I told you the truth about Dru-Zod, but I never told you that when I pulled the trigger on that kryptonite gun, I fully expected to die with him. I almost did. I’m vulnerable to kryptonite.”

She’d only told Sebast that much because he woke her up from nightmares, and the Schecter story wouldn’t fly with him. She’d told him to keep it a secret because the world didn’t need to know that General Zod had lived a couple years longer than everyone thought, and he’d agreed.

Sebast swore quietly. “Kala … no matter where we go from here, I’m glad you didn’t.”

It was her turn to laugh bitterly. “Why? So I could fuck up your life?”

No, estupida, I like the world with you in it,” Sebast said, a flare of anger in his voice.

Kala sighed shakily. “I’m sorry, Sebast. I kept it from you so you’d be safe . Everyone who knows is a target for people like Luthor.”

Yeah, well … what am I supposed to do with this, Kala? I mean shit, my best friend is half Kryptonian, what the fuck?” She could see him in her mind’s eye giving that huge shrug, that summed up the total inability to deal with the massive heap of bullshit she’d dumped on him.

You wanted the truth,” was all Kala could say.

Sebast managed a rusty-sounding chuckle. “I did. Kala … I don’t know where this leaves us. I don’t even know if there is an ‘us’ still. But … thank you. For telling me.”

Kala nodded, the tears tracking down her face, and realized he couldn’t see that. “You deserved it. You’ve deserved it for a long time.”

Yeah,” he sighed. “I’m gonna go. Take care of yourself.”

That sounded more final than the door he’d slammed behind him. She held the phone until the line went dead, then dropped it to the comforter. She wasn’t expecting their usual exchange of ‘I love yous’ but for him to click off without even a goodbye? That left her feeling horrible, and terribly alone.

Jay was right beside her, looking at her worriedly, but Kala dropped her head to her knees and huddled in on herself as the sobs began.

 

 

Jay had listened to the call with mounting worry. Kala sounded incredibly strained, and he was hearing most of Sebast’s half of the call, too. He would’ve expected outrage from him, defensiveness from her, a lot of yelling and cursing … but it had all been bleak and sorrowful. When he signed off, Kala curled up to cry, and Jay tugged her into his lap.

No super-powered heroine here, this was just a girl whose best friend had probably broken things off forever. Jay had no words of wisdom for her, so he just held her while she wept, rubbing her back. Kala clung to the shirt he’d worn to bed, and Jay didn’t even care that she was getting him all snotty again.

She finally came up for air with a gasp of, “Goddammit, I hate crying, I’m gonna have such a headache.”

Jay patted her back. “Yeah, but you might as well get it out. That sounded heavy, K.”

It was,” she replied bleakly.

He nodded. Jay’s options for dealing with major emotional upheaval were pretty limited. “You wanna talk about it, or you want me to bring the scotch and drink enough that you can forget for a while?”

Kala gave him a wan smile. “Running away’s done me so much good so far, right? Hell, bring the scotch anyway. First things first, though, I gotta call Babs. And my mom. Our identities are blown. Shit .”

Jay left her to it, paying no attention to the first brief conversation with Babs. He came back to the bed with two glasses and the bottle just in time to hear Kala say, “It is my fault, Momma. I’m sorry. I’m so damn sorry.”

He could make out Lois’ voice on the other end of the line, saying brusquely, “The hell it is. He was gonna find out somehow, Kala, and at least he’s not running to the press. I’ll let your father and Jason know.”

Yeah, Jase is gonna be even more thrilled with me now,” Kala said dejectedly. “I love you, Momma.”

Jay had poured her a glass by the time she signed off, and Kala drank it straight down without a thought. Which, even knowing what he knew about Kryptonian metabolism, still struck him as worrisome. No sane person knocked back the equivalent of five shots of scotch in one swallow, and Kala didn’t even cough.

She just looked up at him, miserable, and Jay said, “It’s not your fault. What the hell was he doing in your closet, anyway?”

Getting my birthday present,” she replied in a small voice.

I heard that part, but why would he hide it in your closet? Or in your room, even? When was he at your house long enough to even do that?” Jay was just casting around for some way to absolve her, but Kala looked steadily more frightened by his questions, so he stopped and asked, “Kala, what is it?”

She sighed, and rubbed a hand over her face. “Oh, fuck, why am I not surprised? He’s right, I’m too good at this. I never mentioned it? Everything we’ve told each other, and I didn’t say that?”

He tilted his head and stared at her. “Mentioned what?”

Kala groaned and held out the glass. “Oh, fuck my life. Of course, I didn’t.” Jay poured, less this time, and Kala said, “Pour yourself one, I think this is gonna get ugly.”

Oh, great,” Jay said philosophically, and poured a measure. “Go on, hit me.”

They both drank, and Kala said flatly, “It’s not just my house. It’s his house, too.”

Jay could only stare. “You own a house with the guy?”

She cringed. “We both got our advances from the label, and property in Metropolis is really expensive. So we pooled our money and bought a house with a garage already wired up like a workshop, where the band could play.”

Jay sat back, thinking. “Okay, yeah. That makes sense.”

Kala held her glass out again, and when he poured her another shot, she just looked at him until he doubled it. She drank, he drank, and Kala said, “So … property is expensive . The house is a two-bedroom, and we have three other people in the band. Morgan lives in Metropolis but we have Ned and Robb, so we turned the living room into another bedroom, but that’s still only three beds.”

Coulda gone bunk beds,” Jay teased.

She laughed sadly. “The thing is … we’re on the road all the time. And we had sleepovers at each other’s houses before that. There’s not a lot of room on the bus, and in the beginning, we were trying to save on hotel rooms. So … Sebast and I have been sleeping in the same bed pretty much every night for the last five years or so.”

That was a revelation, and as soon as she spoke, Kala winced. Jay’s first reaction was to yell, but he stamped down hard on it. She’d said sleep , not significant-quotes ‘sleep’, and the guy was gay enough to try picking Jay up at the one concert he’d gone to. “Okay,” he finally said. “I guess that’s why he noticed you were gone, huh? Kinda hard to miss when you’re sleeping here instead of in the hotel.”

She looked hopeful. “Which is why I had to leave, most of the time, and I never wanted to, Jay.”

Hold up,” he said, and poured himself more scotch, knocking it back quickly. “You flew here, fucked me, flew back, and slept with him. I get it, that’s not an entirely accurate summary, but it’s not untrue either. And that needs more alcohol to process, y’know?”

Kala seemed to shrink in on herself. “I never lied to you.”

Yeah, but that’s a significant omission,” Jay said. “Jesus fuck, Kala. Okay, okay, hang on, I’m dealing with it.”

His girl, in someone else’s bed. His girl in someone else’s arms. His girl probably waking up with someone else’s morning wood poking her in the hip, and yeah, no, derail that train of thought right now. Jay sighed and stretched his neck ‘til it popped, trying to get the initial caveman reaction under control. She hadn’t been dating the guy or anything, he was pretty damn gay, there was no reason to blow up at her. “So, he was in your bedroom ‘cause it’s your room. Is it his closet, too?”

No, we have separate closets, but he knows me. I’d be looking through his closet for my present if we were home. I’m an asshole that way.” Kala shook her head. “It drives me nuts when Mom does it, but now that I’m not at home, I do it too.”

Well, no sense looking around here, ‘cause no one told me your birthday was coming up,” Jay said. “Fuck, I gotta figure out what to get you. I guess I should thank him, I wouldn’t even know if this hadn’t happened. Or until Babs called me the morning of and snarked at me for being dumb.”

She reached out and caught his hand, looking at him hopefully. “If you wanna give me a present, Jay, just listen to me.”

He turned his hand over in hers and gripped her fingers. “I am listening. But I still gotta pay you back for the nice present you got me.”

Jay,” Kala groaned, but it earned him the ghost of a smile, and he squeezed her hand.

Maybe I’ll put some music on and go full Chippendale. Nothing but a bow tie and a ribbon around my dick,” he suggested, and Kala did laugh then. It was a weak laugh, but better than the misery they were currently floundering through.

Jay sighed, and they sat in silence for a moment before Kala asked, “How pissed are you right now?”

On a scale of one to feeding a drug dealer a whole magazine of lead? Eh, about a four,” he lied. He was a little pissed about the sharing a bed thing, and it was that trace of anger that made him add, “I mean, I thought I was done screwing around with married people when I crawled out of Talia’s bed.”

Jay!” Kala yelped, her eyes hurt, and yeah, he felt like an asshole for that.

C’mon, two people who own a house together, sleep in the same bed, and don’t have sex? That’s most of America’s definition of marriage,” he tried to joke.

We’re not married,” Kala insisted. “Hell, we both got real pissed whenever his mom would drop hints. His family … they’re in denial about him being gay. It’s extremely fucking annoying. Sebast was thinking about bringing home a boyfriend and making him an appetizer, just to make them admit it, even if they threw him out for it.”

That’s … a little extreme,” Jay admitted.

So is Sebast,” Kala said. “It’s not easy being gay, not even in arts school, and he went to regular middle school. It’s not easy being gay and Latino, either. There’s this whole machismo thing going on culturally, not to mention the Catholic thing. Add in a total lack of family support, and it sucks. You have to be tough to get through that. Too many kids don’t. You know the statistics.”

Yeah, I do,” Jay admitted.

So no more jokes about being married, because we weren’t. We weren’t in a relationship, either. We couldn’t be. I’m not gonna be like those fangirls of ours who are always after him. It’s gross, the way they chase him. One time, this little bitch came in for a photo op backstage, and when her friend took the shot, she grabbed his ass. I mean grabbed, not patted, she grabbed a handful and squeezed. I think he leaped four feet in the air. I had security throw her out, the same way I would’ve done to a guy who did it to me.”

As it should be,” Jay said.

Kala shook her head. “He’s off limits, I always knew that. Hell, you wanna know the first thing he ever said to me, on the first day of ninth grade? He sat down near me and Elise in … social studies, I think, and looked at us, and fuck, you like boys, you know he’s gorgeous. And he smiled at us both and said, ‘Hello, ladies, do you like a handsome man with an accent?’ And Elise wasn’t dating Jason yet, she was just my friend then, and both of us kinda laughed and said, ‘Yeah.’ And Sebast grinned like the devil and said, ‘Great, so do I, we have something in common.’ Which pretty much slammed the door on that forever.”

Shit, that’s ballsy,” Jay said, unable to help a little laugh. That fit right in with his stage persona, and the way he’d made eye contact with Jay at the concert. Arrogant as hell.

Kala nodded. “He’s ridiculously confident. He’d have to be, if he was any less cocky he would’ve been another statistic. Sebast got his ass kicked through most of middle school, and he decided if they were all gonna call him queer, he was gonna be so queer he affected the planet’s axial tilt or something.”

Jay looked at her shrewdly, and hell, he was a detective. “You liked that about him, didn’t you? He walks up to two hot girls, introduces himself with a great line, and shuts you both down in a minute flat. You like that kind of arrogant asshole, K. I know you do, you’re with me.”

I am with you,” she said, insistent, and he knew there was something else. “Have been since August, and I haven’t been with anyone else.”

Good, ‘cause neither have I,” Jay replied. He couldn’t resist prodding her for a reaction, and added, “Although Mary has been bringing me a free extra pancake now and then. That’s kind of a sweet deal.”

Mary’s also old enough to be your mother,” Kala shot back, and narrowed her eyes a little. “And I hope you were done screwing your mother-figures when you crawled out of Talia’s bed for the last time.”

Oh, shit!” Jay yelped, dropping his glass. Fortunately it was empty, and landed on the bed instead of the floor. “Fuck, Kala, that’s not fucking fair! She’s not my mom, goddammit!”

She’s married to your dad, isn’t she?” Kala asked imperiously, and didn’t wait for an answer. “I sure don’t look at either of my step-parents like that, and neither of them were actually married to one of my parents.”

Yeah, your step-parents are a bit more than seven years older than you,” Jay shot back. “And she never lived with us or anything. It’s not the same.”

Kala tipped her head sideways. “So, you mean no one would look askance at all if, say, Dick slept with Selina? I mean, no one’s married, and they’re not that far apart in age.”

Fucking hell,” Jay said, and nipped scotch straight from the bottle. She had him cornered and he knew it. “Goddammit, fine, Dick would never go there and neither would Selina. Talia and I were both fucking pissed at Bruce. And I mean, after that, you can’t un-fuck somebody. Might as well say screw the taboos, if you’re both consenting adults and you wanna be there, why not?”

Kala looked at him steadily, and then spoke in a small, controlled voice. “You were both pissed. Sebast and I were both drunk.”

Aw fuck,” Jay groaned. If he’d had Sebast in front of him right now, he would’ve decked the guy. As it was, he really wanted to scream at Kala for this. “Hold on, that’s a solid nine. Jesus fuck, Kala.” He swigged scotch ‘til his throat burned, trying to get it under control. It wasn’t fucking fair, why did every woman he cared about have to have so much complicated shit going on?

It was over a year ago,” Kala said, her voice a little desperate. “Nothing even close to that has happened since. We were both drunk, he’d broken up with his boyfriend – the only guy he ever had a relationship with – I wasn’t with anyone, we were celebrating a sold-out show, we literally felt into bed … and we had sex. Once. And never talked about it after, not even the next day. Now you know why I came to Gotham telling everyone I wasn’t here to hook up. I wanted to train, I needed to train, but more than that, I needed to get him outta my head before I ruined everything.” A sigh, as she looked away. “And I ruined everything anyway.”

You haven’t ruined me yet,” Jay said, mastering his temper. Knowing it had been a year ago, long before she met him, helped. “Although shit, that was mean, dropping that on me right after that about Talia.”

You sure I haven’t ruined things with you?” she asked.

Jay pointed at her. “I’m not a total asshole, all evidence to the contrary aside. What you did before I came along is irrelevant. Not like I asked you for a list of everyone you ever slept with. For a minute there I thought you were telling me you’d fucked him while we were together.”

Kala blanched, her eyes huge. “ No! Oh my god, no! Jay, I’d never do that. I’ve made a lot of dumbass decisions but I wouldn’t do that . I mean, I kissed him once when I was half-asleep, but I thought he was you at the time!” Jay had never seen her look so wounded, not even when she was actually bleeding.

He took her hand, holding it tight. “I know, K, that’s why I hit the scotch, I wouldn’t think you’d go there – but you were acting like it was the worst secret you have.”

I didn’t know what you’d say,” she pointed out. “All this is as normal as breathing for me, it’s the way things have always been with him and me, even when I was seeing someone else. But I was still sleeping in the same bed with him when you came along, Jay, and the look on your face when I said that means I had to tell you about our drunk misadventure.” Kala looked utterly miserable as she spoke, but she was trying to be honest.

I get it, that’s apparently normal enough for you that you didn’t mention it,” Jay replied, still thinking. Trying to think his way through or around knee-jerk reactions, because shit, Kala was already heartbroken thanks to that call and beating herself up about it. He didn’t need to kick her while she was down. And it mattered that she was telling him the truth, even though she knew it would piss him off. He’d never gotten around to asking Talia if she was seeing Bruce at the same time they were hooking up – Jay knew he probably wouldn’t have liked the answer.

In the end, he sighed. Kala had a lot of guts, being this honest. And he’d always liked her honesty and her courage. “I mean, I don’t have a baseline for what best friends do. I’ve only ever had like school friends and superhero friends, y’know? Not like I was bringing kids home to Wayne Manor for sleepovers.”

Most people have a same-sex best friend, anyway,” Kala sighed. “The closest thing I have to that is Elise, and she’s sleeping with my brother. Not going there.”

Jay smirked. “Yeah, no, can’t let anyone collect the set. Besides, in your case, even if your best friend was a chick it wouldn’t be any different. Well, it shouldn’t be, but most guys like the idea of bringing in the girlfriend’s best friend for a threesome. It’s kinda the ultimate dude fantasy, but for a whole lotta sexist bullshit reasons, it’s different when it’s a guy.”

Most men would be pissed about this with Sebast,” Kala admitted. “Not that I usually care what most people think, but … your opinion matters. This is just how it’s been. I can’t change the past, and most of it, I wouldn’t. I can only do things differently in the future.”

Fuck what other people think, this is you and me,” Jay said, making his decision. “Look, I’ve been with people who keep secrets, K, and you’re not one. You don’t do shit out of malice. And the list of people you slept with is probably shorter than mine, and for better reasons.”

Kala smiled wanly at him, and held up her fist, raising one finger as she spoke each name. “All civilians. Nick, the college guy, we both knew it was just for fun and couldn’t last. Dustin, from Smallville, he’s kind of an old family friend and Jase’s best friend. I can’t be a small-town mechanic’s wife, and he can’t live on the road like I do. We tried, twice. Alan, another singer – too self-centered, big mistake, very short-term. See, they weren’t all good reasons. Marlene, my tour manager, we kept it on the down-low so the label wouldn’t realize she was fooling around with the talent. Sebast, once. And you.”

Jay sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. “You know about all the important ones, the ones that lasted a while. There’s a bunch of clients whose names I never knew and whose faces I don’t remember. And some one-night stands, mostly women, a couple guys. I don’t remember their names, either. I used protection religiously .”

I’ve seen you pull condoms out of damn near everything you own, Jay, I figured about the protection,” Kala pointed out.

So yeah. No room for me to judge. But shit, that’s complicated.”

She reached for the scotch, and he handed it over. Kala poured herself a shot and knocked it back. “You’re telling me. Just … you’re not a home-wrecker or anything, Jay.”

He scoffed. “Yeah, well, if he makes you cry like that again, I’ll wreck his home with him still in it.”

Kala managed a watery laugh. “Don’t, please, the insurance is already a bitch and it’ll get worse if I file a claim.”

 

 

“Thanks, Oracle,” Jason said, and put down the phone. He flopped back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling for a moment, then pulled the pillow out from underneath his head and ripped it violently into two pieces. “Goddammit!

Elise, who’d woken up when the phone rang, found herself spitting feathers. “Great choice of displacement, Superstud,” she said dryly. “What is it now?”

More feathers drifted around the room, and Jason growled under his breath, twisting the torn pillow cover in his hands. “My idiot sister wasn’t content with potentially breaching our identities by letting herself get filmed trying to suck Jason Todd’s soul out of his face. Oh, no. Now Sebast knows. He found her old uniform and mask, there’s no denying it, he knows she’s Blur and that means he probably knows about me and Dad. And if he’s smarter than Kala, which I’m starting to think most people are, he’ll figure out that she’s not just hooking up with a Wayne boy, she’s been screwing around with Red Hood. And then there goes everyone else’s identities.” He sat up again, and tore the twisted fabric into more pieces. “She’s being such a moron . And all of us have to pay for it. Fuck .”

Elise knew perfectly well that her husband rarely said that word, not even in bed. Jason seemed to be molding himself even more in his father’s image as he grew up, and living in Smallville had affected his speech patterns, too. So she sat up and put a gentle hand on his arm. “Hey, it sounds like she’s more in love than stupid. You’re right, this is way too much risk, but it’s Sebast . He’s been around as long as I have. Maybe he deserves to know.”

And he’s real pissed at Kala now for hiding things from him,” Jason muttered. “It’s too big a risk. I wasn’t even that happy about you finding out, remember.”

Elise elbowed him lightly. “Hey, you’d have to tell me eventually. I mean I’d notice that you can pick me up one-handed. And I’m really glad I knew these kids were a quarter Kryptonian before now.”

I would’ve told you before we got married,” Jason said, relaxing a little. “You probably would’ve figured it out anyway. But Sebast and Kala aren’t married.”

No, but they’re the most important person in each other’s lives, outside of family,” Elise told him. “I don’t think he’ll go to the press. And even if he does, we’ll handle it somehow. I mean, no one would ever guess your dad’s identity, because why would Superman be Clark Kent of all people? No one’s ever gonna believe that Superboy owns a farm in Kansas.”

He made an irritated noise, and flung the covers back. “I need to go out for a bit. First let me get the vacuum and clean this up, but … I need to hit something hard enough to feel like it matters.”

Elise nodded. “Just don’t mess up the whole meteor shower, okay?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Those moments would be graven in Sebast’s memory forever, the curiosity followed by confusion. When his hand went through the false wall, Sebast had blinked, and then shied back from something soft. It wasn’t moving – he’d thought of some horror movie he’d seen as a kid, rats and spiders in the walls – and shoved that image aside to feel around again. Just fabric of some kind.

Why was there cloth behind the closet? What had the former owners hidden back there? Sebast had latched on to the mystery as an anodyne for his heartache, and looked around for a hidden catch. Not finding one, he’d tugged at the hole he’d made, pulling off pieces of thin, friable wood.

Eventually he’d made a hole big enough to shine a flashlight into, so he went and got one. And then frowned, because this wasn’t some secret from the previous owners of the house. He knew that corset the moment he saw it, Kala had worn it on stage often enough. The pants looked familiar, too. But why would she hide an outfit in the back of her closet?

Why did she have a hidden compartment in her closet at all?

He’d shone the flashlight all around the little space, and when it stopped on the black domino mask hanging up above the corset, the truth had hit him. Sebast had heard ringing in his ears, aware of every breath, suddenly remembering every time she’d gone out early and come back with breakfast from no restaurant or food truck he’d ever found without her. All the times she’d snuck away from the band, and he’d heard something about the Blur on the news later.

The realization had been so huge, the only thing he could think to do was call her. And that had gone … better than expected. No yelling at each other, at least, and he got some answers. But just from her tone Sebast could tell that she dreaded what she was saying, and feared what he’d do next. Did she really think he’d go public with it?

No, despite certain stupid decisions, Sebast figured Kala wasn’t that dumb. So she was afraid that he’d never speak to her again.

Which was an admittedly attractive option. Cut all contact with her family and just walk away. No superheroes and aliens complicating his life, he had enough trouble with normal humans who didn’t speed around in masks.

Sebast groaned. He didn’t know how the hell to fit this new knowledge into his brain, but luckily, he knew at least one person who probably did. Looking through his contacts, he dialed the number without thinking about the time.

Elise’s voice, when she answered, sounded awake already. “Hi, Sebast. What’s up?”

He frowned, looking at the clock. “I … Sorry, I was gonna apologize for waking you, but you sound all chipper already.”

“Mad scientists keep weird hours. C’mon, Sebast, at this time of night I know you’re not calling to see if I wanna grab dinner next time you’re in Kansas. What is it?” Her voice sounded affectionate, but a little wary, and he should’ve expected that.

“Do you know?” Sebast asked, and when she hesitated he plunged on, “And if you do know, then you know what I’m asking. If you don’t, then both twins are crazy for keeping it a secret. So lemme rephrase that, Elise, do you know?”

His emphasis made the meaning plain, and she sighed heavily. “Hang on. I have to call you back on the secure line. One minute?” He agreed, and waited, and she rang him back from the landline. Elise launched immediately into their original conversation. “Yeah, Sebast. I know. I found out when Luthor tried to kill me and Jason. Kinda hard to hide it when you’re running for your life.”

He was quiet for a long moment, trying to figure out what to say, what to ask. What to do. “So you’ve known since we were sixteen that the two of them are Supers. And you know Kala is the Blur.”

Elise’s breath whistled. “Okay, fine, yeah. She’s Kala Kal-El, she’s Superman’s daughter. Have you even thought about what that means, Sebast?”

“That she’s fuckin’ lied to me about everything since the day we met,” he said bleakly.

No, you short-sighted dickweed, pull your head outta your ass for a minute,” Elise told him angrily. “This isn’t about you, or me. You know what happened in Nevada? What really happened?”

“Luthor took her,” he began.

“Not because she was Superman’s daughter. Because she speaks fluent Kryptonese,” Elise said sternly, cutting him off. “Because Luthor stole the memory crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude years ago, when those two were only like five years old, and there’s twenty-eight galaxies’ worth of information on those. Including highly advanced alien weapons technology. Luthor’s been trying to crack it for years, he probably still is, but back then he needed someone who can speak their language properly, and a human larynx just can’t. You know he had General Zod there?”

“She told me she killed him. Kala still has nightmares about Zod,” Sebast said, feeling a tremor start up in his bones. Hearing her lost and frightened voice after those nightmares had made that man a figure of terror for Sebast as well. Most people didn’t know about Zod’s involvement, the public didn’t need to find out that a genocidal maniac had lived longer than he should’ve, but Kala had woken up crying that name in tones of horror too often for Sebast not to find out he’d part of the whole mess in Nevada.

“Yeah, Luthor faked Zod’s death and broke him out of prison so he could unlock the weapons tech. And Zod refused to do it. He was crazy, but not that crazy. He lied and told Luthor only a descendant of the House of El – someone of Superman’s bloodline – could do it. So Luthor planned to take Jason. That’s why Giselle was there. The minute he agreed to go off with her and her bitch mother, they would’ve taken him.”

“I can’t believe I believed that lying little cunt for a second,” Sebast whispered.

“Yeah, but she had us all fooled,” Elise said. “Giselle was a pro. She played us all – and she paid for it in the end. Luthor had her killed before she could talk. She didn’t intend to make Kala run away, she just hated her. Because she was interfering in the plan, and because she was a bitch to Giselle. In the long run, it’s probably a good thing Kala got taken, because they were prepared for Jason – and they got the twin they weren’t prepared for.”

“Madre de Dios,” Sebast murmured, sitting down. This was utterly surreal, hearing this kind of heavy shit about his girl. About Kala, who always cut her toast diagonally and couldn’t stop herself from mouthing the lyrics when she listened to music. The girl he knew who, when she was really tired, slept in a flattened sprawl they both teasingly called ‘the roadkill position’. Kala who got practically apoplectic whenever they saw a grocery sign that used apostrophes for plurals. “Holy fuck, Elise.”

“Holy fuck is about right. I’m not even done.” She let out a sigh like a bellows, and he could almost see her pressing her free palm to her forehead in frustration. “So yeah. Luthor got Kala. Did she tell you she was almost gang-raped on day one?”

Sebast swallowed. He’d heard that … and understood murder. If he could have gotten his hands on any man that had tried that with Kala, he’d do his best to end the bastard’s life. “I know that’s in her nightmares, too,” he said, his voice thick.

“Do you know all of it? Do you know Zod was the one who saved her? Do you know she and Zod conspired against Luthor together? Do you know Zod basically brainwashed her, because guess what, Sebast, Kala is the only living female Kryptonian. Zod had plans. He was gonna let Luthor kill Lois and Superman and Jason, then kill Luthor himself, and set off to rule the fucking planet all over again – with Kala by his side. That’s what she has nightmares about, Sebast. Kala Dru-Zod, Empress of Earth.”

Sebast had no words for that, just a dry squeak. Kala had been carrying all this? For all this time? She’d only told him the bare minimum, not all the horrifying implications.

Elise didn’t stop, though. “And when she figured out he was using her, Kala killed him . Did you know that, Sebast? She killed General Zod, and she meant to kill herself, too. The weapon she used leaked enough kryptonite radiation to have killed her. If Jason hadn’t been there to pry her out, and Kal-El hadn’t taken her up to supercharge in the sun, she would’ve died. That’s what Jason has nightmares about. Not saving her in time, busting into that weapons locker and finding his sister already dead. The same way he has nightmares about his hand slipping when he and their dad fished her out of the ocean.”

Sebast hadn’t guessed, until Kala had told him just moments ago. He knew she’d killed Zod, but not that she meant to go out with him. It had been hard enough all these years to believe she’d actually killed a man. His Kala, who was always trying to go vegetarian because she loved animals so much? Kala who caught lizards and moths and even fuckin’ spiders and took them outside the house, rather than kill them? She killed a man? Not just a man, either, a villain with all of Superman’s powers, one whose name was still spoken with caution and dread. It didn’t make sense, though she had no reason to lie, and he’d always assumed she’d acted out of fear. Now, it sounded more ruthless, a calculating decision – and one she hadn’t meant to live with. That recent revelation still sent chills down his back. He could’ve lost her, and he wouldn’t have ever known the truth.

Elise was still speaking. “And the reason the Blur hasn’t been a household name until recently is because ever since Kala was six years old, she wanted to be Supergirl, and between Luthor and Zod they made her think she’s too broken, too dark , to wear the S-shield. She saw Zod’s plan for her and killed him because she thought it would’ve worked . So she wears a mask, and never sticks around for the press. She can’t even spend time with her father or her brother when they’re out saving the goddamn world, because it might blow their cover. She wanted so bad to be a hero, Sebast, and after Nevada she thought she wasn’t good enough.” Elise sounded on the verge of tears. “She only got back into it because Troia chewed her ass, and pretty much told her to get trained or get out. So Kala got trained, with the Bats, because they’re the hardest of the hardcore. And guess what, Sebast? She’s good at this. She can make a fucking difference in the world. Who the hell are we to tell her she shouldn’t do it?”

“I wouldn’t tell her not to do it!” he insisted, because in all of this mess it was the only thing that rang true and clear and obvious. “Fuck, I’d be fucking happy for her, you know how much shit is starting to make sense now that I fucking know? Jesus Christ, I coulda helped her! But she never told me.”

“No one told me,” Elise said. “I found out because I would’ve died if Jason hadn’t broken out the superpowers. And because Superman showed up when he yelled for ‘Dad’. The only person who was ever told was Lois’ mother, and only because Ella Lane already knew Superman was their father when Lois started telling the world that Clark was their dad. He had to tell her the truth about himself.”

Sebast squeaked again. The horror that Elise had been in danger – that he would’ve been in danger, if he’d gone, and not in danger of getting hurt or arrested, but of getting killed – that had been swamped by the next truth bomb. Kala had mentioned that Ella was the only one who was ever told, but she’d hadn’t said it the same way. The way that finally opened Sebast’s eyes to the other big damn secret floating around. Shock drove him almost to incoherence. “Wait, what ? You mean Clark …? Oh, shit , of fucking course , I mean holy shitting fuck. Fuck. Fuck! Elise I’ve hangin’ out at Superman’s house!”

“Yep, Superman makes great mac and cheese,” Elise said dryly. “Get over it. You know the Blur, and Superboy, and Superman. You also know a chick who’s willingly pregnant with alien hybrid twins, and who has a top-secret lab installed under her barn. I work for the JLA. Sebast, be glad you weren’t in it, because once you know, you’ll never have a normal life again. That’s what Kala was trying to save you from. She thinks of you as her touchstone for humanity, Sebast. The way Lois is for Big Blue. She loves the hero life, but there’s gotta be someplace to come home to after the crazy stuff is done for the day. Otherwise what’s the point?”

Sebast could only sit there in shocked silence while the reality of it all sunk in. “Aw, fuck,” he said, seeing all the decisions in a new light. Elise’s choices, Kala’s lies, even some of Jason’s idiosyncrasies. “Is this why you ran from Jason for so long?”

“Yeah. You know how these assholes recruited me? Some chick named Oracle, who used to be Batgirl and is basically a god-tier hacker, had me kidnapped and wired up for low-voltage electroshock. Not that I knew it was low-voltage at the time. She made me think I was being interrogated, to see if I’d give up Supes’ identity. When I didn’t, even after she zapped me, she offered me a job.”

“Jesus, you actually took the job?” Sebast said.

“No, I told her to get fucked,” Elise snapped. “And then the goddamned Batman consulted me on a chem question and roped me in anyway. That coulda been you, Sebast, sitting in what you were sure was an electric chair.”

“Fuck, I woulda pissed myself,” he muttered.

“I did,” Elise laughed. “I mean, there’s compensations. I commute to work with Jason’s ex, who happens to be Wonder Girl. She flies a lot safer than Kala.”

“Kala can fly,” Sebast said, and suddenly realized how she was seeing a guy in Gotham while they were on tour out west. Still more pieces falling into place.

“Yep. The twins don’t have the exact same powers as their dad, like Jason doesn’t fly and Kala doesn’t have as much strength, but they both have more than the public knows about. And by the way, do not go on a flight with Kala, unless you wanna know what a fighter jet on meth would be like.”

“Dunno if you noticed, but Kala and I are not exactly speaking,” Sebast said quietly.

Elise scoffed. “Yeah, but she loves you. And you love her. And now you know . Like it or not, you’re in on the secret now, and there’s only a handful who know the truth. You, me, Richard, and Lana. We’re the only ones who aren’t heroes or villains. You can’t un-know it. So I’m pretty sure you guys will sort things out eventually, if only so you can ask Clark why the hell he decided to be Clark, when he can be anyone.”

That got a weak chuckle out of him. “I dunno, Elise. I said some shit I can’t un-say. And … she’s got this Jason Todd, now. Which, I guess I know who he really is, too.” Sebast knew who the Blur was supposedly dating, Kala had joked lightly about her before – and now he knew why, just hiding in plain sight. He had read about the Blur in Gotham when they passed through the city, and seen who she worked with, and it didn’t seem likely that Kala would work so closely with someone and just happen to have a boyfriend in the same city.

“He’s really Jason Todd,” Elise said firmly. “Like she’s really Kala. Don’t get the person and the mask confused. They all have to pretend, Clark pretends to be clumsy and shy so no one would ever guess, but the people we’ve sat down to dinner with are who they really are. I mean, Superman and Superboy and the Blur are real, too, but they can’t be them all the time. They can’t live like that, full time. Even Wonder Woman has a secret identity. All of them need to be able to live in the world when they’re not saving it. You still know Kala. She’s wanted to be a rock star longer than she’s wanted to be Supergirl.”

“This guy knows both sides of her,” Sebast said bleakly. “He’s out there fighting beside her, and he saw her over the summer while she was doing publicity stuff for the band.”

“No, he saw her when he was training her. She did publicity stuff with Dick Grayson. Jason Todd never liked the limelight. Kala was supposed to be training with the Bats, but she got most of it with him. She didn’t not pick up her phone because she was flirting, Sebast. She was too busy starving herself off sunlight – which Kryptonians need to live – to learn how to fight without her powers.”

He closed his eyes, his heart aching. “She could’ve told me,” he whispered. “I would’ve kept her secret.”

“It’s not just her secret,” Elise said. “It’s her father, and her brother. It’s Wonder Girl and Red Hood and everyone out there in a cape.”

Sebast blinked. If Jason Todd was Red Hood, then … there were three Wayne brothers, after all, and three male vigilantes who regularly worked with Batman. “Yeah … why do I get the feeling I know who a bunch of people in Gotham are, after hours?”

“Don’t pull on that string,” Elise warned. “I’m serious, Sebast. Yeah, once you know a couple of heroes you can figure out the rest, but you know what that gets you? A big fat target on your back. Luthor knows who I am. He knows whose kids I’m having. He’s not in the country, Oracle is keeping watch and so is the JLA, but if someone wants to get to the Supers, I’m a damn good hostage. And if you let anybody know that you know, the bad guys will come hunting you, too. You think you’ve figured out the Bats? Shit, Luthor scares me, but the Bats have Joker.”

At that, Sebast crossed himself, a gesture he had never made outside of church – and he only let his mother drag him there for Easter and Christmas. “Fucking hell,” he whispered.

Elise continued grimly, “Joker’s only part of it. I work with the Bats. They have bad guys the media doesn’t even know about, people who are smart enough to lay low and work from the shadows. You think you know what Kala spent her summer doing, Sebast? She’s fought Joker. And Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, and Scarecrow. And met someone whose name wouldn’t mean anything to you, but who runs an international league of mercenaries and assassins.” A short, brittle laugh. “ That one came to breakfast. Apparently Batman has trouble telling his friends from his enemies, if they look good in a catsuit.”

“You’re right, I don’t want any of this shit,” Sebast said hurriedly, before she could drop any more unwanted knowledge on him. “I just wanted my girl.”

“Then you should’ve made a move,” Elise said sharply. “She wanted to tell you, Sebast. I know she did, and she hates herself for lying. But they all lie, to keep the people they love out of this crazy shit. Or they just hook up with other capes – and villains sometimes, Batman’s not the only one with that problem. It’s a goddamn lonely life, Sebast. One that none of them really asked for. Kala is what she is, she doesn’t have much choice. She can hear someone calling for help across town – across the country. How can she not answer?”

He was silent for a long moment. “Fuck, I owe her an apology. And I need her to know … I’m not gonna spill this. I don’t … I don’t know if there’s anything left, there, I mean we both burned that bridge real good, and if this guy … if he’s good for her … I don’t wanna screw that up. But can you tell her? Her secret’s safe with me?”

“Yeah, Sebast, I’ll tell her,” Elise said. “I know that, and she probably does too. Dammit, you’re my friend too, and I don’t want to be the asshole here. It’s just … I get how crazy all of this is. I live it every day. Lois and Clark love you, too, and so does Jason. If you want to walk away, they’ll understand, you can’t force anybody into this life. But dammit, it’d be nice to have another civvie in the know I could talk to. And I can’t imagine you not being here, after all this time.”

He chuckled at that. “You and me, the out-laws of the family. I don’t … I don’t really wanna walk away from all this. It’s just a lot. I need to think. And I’ve got my own shit to figure out even before I get around to the girl I’m half in love with is half alien.” Sebast paused, thoughtful, and tried to see the lighter side of it all. “Maybe that’s my excuse. I don’t like girls, I just like Kryptonians.”

“You have issues,” Elise laughed. “They are … different. And an endangered species, which is why I’m putting my career on hold to grow another generation.”

“I wondered about you settling down so quick,” Sebast admitted.

“Yeah, well, hybrid pregnancies are by definition high risk. It’s better if I start young, when I’m in peak physical condition. Kryptonians also aren’t terribly fertile, so it’s taken a while.” She sounded clinical, like she was about to go off on a mad science tangent.

“Please don’t tell me how virile Jason Kent is,” Sebast said quickly. “I know him, I do not need details about the guy I call Lizardboy.”

Elise snorted laughter. “Okay, fine. And I’ll tell Oracle she can stop monitoring your phone and your laptop.”

“My what?” he asked, shocked.

“They don’t play, Sebast,” Elise told him. “The minute you told Kala you knew, she had to tell her father and brother, because you could figure them out. But first she had to tell Oracle, because that’s who monitors the information. Oracle called Jason, and he’s out punching rocks ‘cause he’s pissed at his sister for letting it slip – and letting you go. But more importantly, you know enough, now, that you could figure out a whole lot of people. Which means, ever since you said it to Kala, the world’s best hacker has been watching your phone and laptop to see who you’d call, what you’d post, what you’d do. Hell, you know your phone’s mic is always on, right? That’s why when you do a voice search, it responds. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oracle heard our whole conversation.”

“Holy shit, is someone coming after me?” he asked.

Before Elise could reply, he heard a distinct click on the line, followed by a digitized voice. “Whose secure line did you think she was calling you back on, Mr. Vélez? I hardly needed to tap your phone mic.”

Oracle!” Elise yelled, indignant.

“Jesus!” Sebast yelped. “The fuck is this bullshit?!”

“Elise, does she always go for the profane ones?” Oracle asked rhetorically. “In answer to your question, no, we’re not sending anyone after you. You’re a civilian. That’s a line we don’t cross.”

“I remember jumper cables that say otherwise,” Elise muttered.

“And you’ll never let me forget it, I know. One point you got wrong, though. I’ve been watching Mr. Vélez since he walked out of the band. Kala notified us that Jason Todd had been identified, and I started monitoring then.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Elise snarked.

Oracle said to Sebast, who was still staring wide-eyed at the phone, “We are very protective of our own, and you had enough pieces of the puzzle to start making a lot of connections, as soon as you found out Kala is the Blur. Better to watch for that, and handle it proactively as soon as it happened. But the first thing you did was to call her, no one else.”

“Of course I called her,” he grumbled.

“And she remembered to tell me, distraught as she was. Then you called Elise. You didn’t try to contact a newspaper, or God forbid the Capespotting blog. If you had, I’d shut down your phone. Then, well, you’re in Metropolis. I’d just tell Superman. And he would come have a very civil conversation with you, but if you still wanted to tell the world … he and his family would go into hiding. They won’t hurt you, they’d let you ruin their lives and careers before they’d hurt a civilian. We’re not the bad guys. Also, I have good intel that says he personally likes you.”

“Thank you, Captain Interference,” Elise said. “Could you not? I had this under control.”

“Yes, you handled it very well. Thank you. Also thank you for the god-tier hacker comment. It means a great deal, coming from you.” With that, the line clicked again.

Sebast said, quietly and thoughtfully, “So this is how it is. Superheroes and shit just bounce into your life any time, and all you can do is roll with it.”

“Yeah, that’s my life,” Elise sighed. “It’s a good thing Jason’s cute.”

Rubbing his forehead, Sebast replied, “Yeah, he’s a good guy. I just … I dunno, Elise. I wasn’t looking for all of this to land in my lap.”

“Nobody is. Hell, Jason and Kala weren’t. They didn’t know who their father really was until they got kidnapped the first time. Also, once you start running around with capes, the phrase ‘kidnapped the first time’ becomes more common in your vocabulary.”

“No wonder Lois is the way she is,” Sebast said thoughtfully. “Shit, no wonder she’s got a permit to carry concealed in Metropolis. Mama Bear knows how much danger her cubs are in, every day.”

“Yeah, well, both twins are basically armed full-time,” Elise said. “They both know how to shoot, and Kala’s picked up some more formal martial arts stuff with escrima sticks and that, but once you consider flight and strength and heat vision, she doesn’t really need it most of the time.”

Sebast was struck by a vision of Kala, hovering in midair, and it gave him chills. “Thanks for making me feel like I slept with a demigoddess.” And then, replaying what he’d said, he cursed softly.

“I already knew,” Elise said cautiously. “I think I’m the only one who does, though, and that’s one little factoid I didn’t share with Jase. She talked to me not long after it happened, but it sounded like a one-night thing because you were both drunk.”

“Yeah, well, I’m starting to think we both fucked up,” Sebast said. “She was acting like nothing happened the next morning, and I figured that meant it was terrible – I mean, I don’t know a damn thing about sleeping with women – so I just went with it. And ever since we’ve been pretending like nothing happened.”

Elise sighed into the phone. “Oh, geez. I mean, this is not the time to tell this, but … that’s not what it was. Sebast, she had a crush on you from the moment we all met. Quite frankly, so did I, but I decided I like my men a little more corny than cocky. She was freaking out that she’d ruined things with you, that you wouldn’t stay as her friend after that, and she didn’t want to be one of those girls who chase you.”

Sebast shook his head. “Dammit, she’s not like them. And I … I’ve been trying to figure my shit out since the summer. When she wasn’t there every day I realized how much I missed her. But I kept my mouth shut because of this tour, and all the stress, it was the wrong time to say something. And now she’s with someone else who it sounds like knows her better than I do.”

“It’s not that he knows her better, it’s just that he knows what she is,” Elise corrected. “He runs around with villains and heroes and aliens and Amazons like it’s just another Tuesday. But the Kala you know, I have no idea how much of that he’s even seen. It’s not like they’ve had a lot of chances to be around each other when they weren’t in uniform, fighting bad guys. And as for summer, I know for a fact that they weren’t an item until August.”

“Which is about when she started disappearing every chance she could,” Sebast replied miserably. “Shit, Elise, I screwed all this up. I don’t even know what we could’ve had, I might’ve lost my best friend being so short-sighted and jealous when I had no right to be.”

Elise spoke brusquely. “Maybe you both should’ve said something a long time ago, but you had an arrangement that worked for a while. And Sebast, yeah, from what I hear in the hero gossip this is a serious thing. Something that might last, and Kala deserves that. But if you want your best friend back… Here’s the thing about Supers, they’re very loyal. Kala loves you way too much to just forget you.”

“I’m not gonna be one of those assholes bitching about the friend zone,” Sebast decided. “If I can only be her friend, fine. I don’t even know if anything more would actually work out with us. But damn, I miss her. Things would have to change, we never had like boundaries and maybe we need some. But … Elise, I want her back.”

Having said it was a burden off his heart. Even if he had to hear all about her budding relationship with Red Hood, even if she was half-alien and sometimes had to fly across the planet to save people’s lives, Sebast figured he could deal with that. Kala was worth it.

“Great, that’ll be a fifty dollar copay for this session, see me in two weeks and we’ll talk about your mom,” Elise said, and both of them laughed. There might’ve been a hysterical edge to it, but the laughter was still very welcome. “Just give it some time, both of you breathe and think about it. Figure yourself out before you head back to the tour. The holidays are coming up and things are gonna be crazy.”

“Yeah, I need a vacation from that twat Derek, if nothing else,” Sebast sighed. “Do you know that asshole thought Kala was on drugs?”

“I heard,” Elise said. “He’s a moron. Most drugs wouldn’t do much for her. Her metabolism runs so fast the effects wear off too quickly. She can get drunk, but not for long. And she doesn’t get hangovers if she can get sunlight.”

Sebast nodded, realizing why the whole drug-soaked subculture in the music industry completely passed Kala by. And also realizing why Kala always basked in the sun. “Shit, no wonder she wanted this house, with all the windows.”

“Solar-powered superheroes,” Elise said. “Speaking of sun, you know why she gets up so early? She flies to Metropolis and hovers in the light with her dad. In the ionosphere, Sebast. And then she swings by and gets breakfast for the band, half the time.”

“I wondered where she found a good French bakery in Amarillo,” Sebast said. “Damn, Elise, I need to get off the phone with you before my brain leaks out my ears. But … things are making more sense. And dammit, I can help her, now that I know.”

“Give it time,” Elise warned.

“Oh, I am, I’m not doing anything until after the holidays,” he said. “My parents talked me into going down to Ponce for Christmas, which means like three whole weeks.”

“Okay. If you need to talk, call me. I think I might have at least one line that Oracle doesn’t listen to.”

Both of waited for a telltale click on the line, but not hearing one, they signed off for the night. Sebast just sat there at the foot of the bed he’d shared with basically Supergirl, and stared at the wall, thinking.

At least the pieces were coming together, even if they made a much bigger puzzle than he’d ever guessed.

 

 

Babs was still recording that call, with all of its sensitive and personal discussion heavily encrypted, but she wasn’t listening to it. Though Elise might personally dislike her, she still trusted that the younger woman wouldn’t hesitate to tell her anything important that resulted from the conversation. She sat back, looking at her screens and seeing instead Elise’s fierce gray eyes, narrowed in mistrust.

Elise Thorne was already one of the world’s premier xenobiologists, and an asset to the entire caped community. Babs considered it a personal failing that she’d started off on the wrong foot with her. Her own personality had been described as abrasive, but that wasn’t the problem. In testing Elise’s loyalty, Babs had put the safety of Kal-El and his family above the trust of one young biochem major. At the time, it had seemed sensible. The choice she made had far-reaching effects, and Babs didn’t know how to repair the breach between them. She sighed; in this she was more like Bruce than she wanted to admit. He always did what was right by his exacting definition of justice, no matter the damage to anyone’s trust in him. Everyone else just had to deal, or not. He would never compromise.

She would need to consult an expert in interpersonal relationships to keep from going down the same road with Sebast, and fortunately she had one available. Dinah had juggled all the driven, intense personalities in Green Arrow’s set and was doing the same with the JLA now. Surely she could mend this one. Babs reached for her comm, intending to remind Dinah how much she appreciated her. The blonde was currently out with Helena, grabbing a late night snack on their way back from patrol. She needed to talk to both of them about Libya, too, but that could wait until they got back here.

Before she could place that call, her phone chirped and the monitors flashed an incoming priority message. A wave of goosebumps ran up Babs’ arms; very few things could trip an override of the main display and send a simultaneous message to her phone, and one of them was at large currently. She hit the lockdown button first, before she’d read further than the first handful of words in the message.

The time and date, followed by the name that Babs dreaded most: Joker. She drew her sticks, listening, and heard nothing but the CPU fans running. The next few words were perplexing, and Babs put one escrima stick aside to click through to the full report.

Joker admitted to Gotham General, the first line read, and Babs starting pulling data from the police and the hospital as they covered the emerging situation. Within minutes, she’d reversed the lockdown. Whatever had happened, Joker was currently in no condition to traipse over here.

The comm chirped, and she opened the line. “Oracle here.”

“You saw the hospital admission?” Bruce said, in the gravelly voice of the Bat.

“Reading up now. Why didn’t I see anything about him crossing paths with one of ours?” she asked. The amount of trauma inflicted made her wonder about Jay, but he was offline and in bed by now. Or should have been. And Kala was with him, likely still unsettled by Sebast’s phone call. It couldn’t have just been Jay, he wouldn’t leave her alone after a traumatic call like that. Besides, Kala would never have let Jay go up against Joker alone, not if she’d been within a thousand miles of Gotham. Babs knew in her heart that if Kala had met up with Joker tonight, he’d be in the morgue, not the hospital.

“Check the ER video feed. It was a civilian car that dropped him off, likely one or more of his henchmen,” Bruce said. “None of us did this. I’m on my way to the hospital. Someone needs to protect the medical staff and police, whenever Joker regains consciousness.”

“Noted,” Babs said, and did not bother to tell him that the world would be a better place if Joker never woke up. Bruce knew about the Sebast situation, she’d notified him because his identity was also at stake, and so he also knew that Kala and Jay weren’t in the field. Hence his certainty that none of theirs were involved.

“I’ll keep you posted once I’m in place,” Bruce said, and that made her smile for a moment. Normally Bruce wouldn’t bother saying something so obvious; that was his way of trying to reassure her.

“Thank you,” Babs told him, and signed off, picking up Dinah and Helena’s comms. “Ladies, step up the pace if you can. Something’s gone down, we’re not sure what, but Joker just landed in the Gotham General ER with severe injuries.”

“It couldn’t happen to a more deserving person,” Dinah said dryly. “We’re on our way, Oracle.”

Knowing they were inbound, Babs turned her formidable intellect to the impact this news would have on Gotham. It could have been a good thing, and in most cities, having the most dangerous criminal in town out of commission would be. But Gotham wasn’t like any other city. With Joker in the hospital, some of the other rogues would take that as an opportunity. Some of his own crew might try to step up their game. With the King of Crime dethroned, Gotham would turn chaotic.

Well, more chaotic. The city’s underbelly had never really been stable . And if Joker actually died, all hell would break loose.

Babs sighed; this had to take precedence over the situation in Libya. She could only hope that Cass and Steph were being cautious.

 

Chapter Text

The Riverside Veterinary Emergency Clinic was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year. Some nights they received no patients at all, and the staff caught up on charting and handled the hospitalized animals. Some nights they got utterly slammed, trying to triage cases eerily similar to those seen in human hospitals. Gunshot wounds, vehicular impacts, and in-home accidents happened to pets as well as people. And then there were the acute diseases and worsening chronic ones to consider. A parrot with psittacosis or a dog in a diabetic coma could come through the door at any hour.

Overnight, they had two veterinarians on staff, a third on call, and a variety of vet techs and kennel techs. When what was later referred to as ‘the incident’ occurred, there were two patients in the back and thankfully only one in the lobby. The two in back were stable: a catheterized tomcat with bladder stones and a Lab recovering from emergency gastric surgery after eating what later turned out to be three socks, two dollars and forty-eight cents in change, a child’s rubber ducky, and – to the hilarity of the surgical team – a small plastic Christmas ornament shaped like a partridge in a pear tree.

The one in the lobby was Mrs. Sutherland’s elderly Jack Russell terrier Moxie, who had gotten into a fight with her neighbor’s Rottweiler when the terrier finally succeeding in digging under the fence that separated them. The Rottweiler had some bites to the face and legs, but Moxie had a huge, ugly gash in her shoulder where the larger dog had tried to grab and shake her. It was bandaged, for now, and luckily the damage was superficial if unsightly. Mrs. Sutherland and the receptionist were trying to work out a payment plan to cover the cost of anesthesia and sutures, since Moxie was not exactly amenable to further handling at the moment. In fact, she was tugging on her leash and growling, ready for the next contender; from her point of view, she’d won the fight when the Rottweiler obeyed his owner’s commands to ‘Leave it’ and ‘Come here’.

That night qualified as a slow one, right up until the moment when the doors burst open and a woman staggered in, carrying what looked like a huge dog, both of them covered in blood. Another enormous animal was at her side, off leash, and Moxie began snarling threats and imprecations in typical terrier fashion. Mrs. Sutherland took one look at the loose animal, the injured one, and their owner, whose face she’d seen on the news plenty of times, and snatched up Moxie, fleeing the clinic.

(Moxie was later treated at her regular vet, received thirty-eight sutures, and conned every tech in the place into thinking she was a sweetheart. Recuperating at home, she continued to bark abuse at the Rottweiler through the repaired fence. She never knew how lucky she was not to be allowed to attack a fully-grown, highly-stressed hyena. Like any terrier, she would’ve considered it a grand adventure.)

Meanwhile the receptionist instantly recognized Harley Quinn, even before she leveled a revolver at the receptionist’s face. “You gotta help him, he’s been shot!” she exclaimed, tears streaking through her mascara.

This being Gotham, it was not the first time a panicked client had pulled a gun on the staff. It was the first time a pair of hyenas showed up in the lobby along with their most-wanted owner. The commotion drew a pair of techs and the senior vet, Dr. Benden, who took one look at the scene and called for a gurney. “Put the gun down, there’s no need for that,” he said sternly, coming over to Harley. “How long ago was he shot? How many times?”

Harley saw a white coat and stethoscope, and shoved her revolver back in her pocket. “It’s been … half an hour? Twice, I think. He’s bleedin’ real bad, Doc.” Her voice shook, and the weight of the hyena was more than she should’ve been able to handle.

The techs rushed out with the gurney, and Dr. Benden started to help Harley lay the patient down on it. Bud reacted to unfamiliar hands on him while he was in pain by snapping his jaws, and Harley caught his head. “No, baby, shush, it’s okay, they’re gonna help ya,” she soothed, and Bud whimpered. Lou, still loose in the lobby and crowding Harley’s legs, whined pathetically.

Get me an XXL muzzle,” Dr. Benden said, and took a firm grip on the back of Bud’s neck, where the jaws couldn’t possibly reach him. He already noted a wound in the animal’s side, from which blood flowed sluggishly. He quickly checked Bud’s gums, ignoring the snarling but exquisitely careful of how he placed his hand, and found them pale but still pink. Pressing down on the gum until it whitened, he released it and noticed a slow capillary refill time, which likely meant shock in addition to blood loss. “Let’s get him in the back, start IV fluids, I want a pulse ox and heart monitor,” he said to the techs, and they started rolling the gurney as another came running with the requested muzzle.

Harley started to follow them back, and Dr. Benden stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “I need you to wait here with the other one,” he said, as if her extensive rap sheet and the pistol sticking out of her pocket didn’t exist. He was a vet first, and in his eyes Harley Quinn was just another client, terrified for her pet’s life.

I wanna be with Bud,” she protested.

If you’re there, he’ll be trying to protect you,” Dr. Benden said. “If it’s just him we can work on him. Besides, I need you to get a leash on the other one. We might need him for a blood transfusion. Is he injured, too?”

No, Lou’s fine, he ran,” Harley said, her voice breaking on a sob. “Bud’s the one who … please, Doc, you gotta save him. I’ve got money, do whatever it takes.”

Dr. Benden patted her shoulder, to the surprise of his receptionist who had already picked up the phone to dial 911. “Sit down, Ms. Quinn, and try to stay calm. It’ll help Lou stay calm, too. Bud’s in good hands.”

She nodded, and then a steely light came into her eyes. “If you call the cops on me, there’s gonna be some dead cops on your conscience.”

Dr. Benden glanced over at the receptionist, who replaced the phone and tried to look as if she’d never even heard of such a device. “Natalie, please lock the door and come in back with me,” Dr. Benden said. “I think it’s for the best if we keep outside disturbances to a minimum until the patient is stable.”

Harley collapsed into the closest chair, pulling Lou to her. He whined and licked her face, looking worriedly at the receptionist as she quickly locked the doors and headed into the back. There was another phone back there, and she glanced at it meaningfully as Dr. Benden examined his patient. “No, Natalie, there’s no need to call them,” he said, as a tech fitted the muzzle over Bud’s snout and another shaved his foreleg.

Doctor…” Natalie began, and Bud picked that moment to try and get up. It took four techs to hold him down, and his growls vibrated through all of them.

If the police try to arrest her right now, she’ll definitely shoot someone,” Dr. Benden said grimly. “Maybe one of us, since her only goal is saving this animal and taking one of us hostage would both ensure compliance and keep the police back. So let’s handle this with as little drama as possible, shall we? Ring up the zoo vet, let him know what we’ve got. I want a phone consultation, at least.” He turned to one of the techs and said, “Get me Wyatt’s Anesthesia, and look up hyenas. We’re going to have to sedate him to even get hands on him. Can we get a weight, people?”

Moving Bud to the scale showed them that he could stand up under his own power, but at least they got his weight at approximately one hundred fifteen pounds. Dr. Benden gave the appropriate dose of ketamine and xylazine in an intramuscular shot to Bud’s hindquarters, and the big hyena began to get sleepy. Soon they had him intubated on oxygen on and isofluorane. The muzzle had to come off when the endotracheal tube went down, but it was tied in place with gauze that also served as an emergency muzzle, just in case he started to wake up. They got an IV running in his foreleg, and a pulse oximeter clipped to his tongue to monitor heart rate, respiration, and oxygenation.

Dr. Benden looked at all the values, but even more, he trusted the feel of the big animal’s shoulder rising and falling under his hand. He had been in the business long enough to watch all the fancy monitoring equipment trickle down from human medicine, and there were advances in veterinary science that would’ve completely boggled him if anyone had suggested it was possible back when he first started. A lot of things came down to intuition and luck, in the old days, and while he preferred to know how his patients were doing with the careful monitoring of vital signs, he still consulted his innate feel for a situation. And this one felt fairly stable.

Now let’s get a proper exam,” he said, and ran his hands over Bud’s relaxed body. There were two obvious gunshot wounds, an entry in the front of his chest, and an exit in his right ribcage. That could be very bad, and Dr. Benden wasn’t letting himself think about what would happen if Harley Quinn’s obviously much-loved hyena died on the table. If the heart or lungs were pierced, though, he wouldn’t have expected the animal to survive the trip here. At the very least, its gums would’ve been white from internal bleeding, instead of the pale pink.

There certainly was some bleeding inside, but it wasn’t a runaway disaster, not yet. And so far he’d only found evidence of one shot. Harley had said there were two shots, but any pet owner in such a situation could be forgiven for miscounting. There might’ve only been one, there might’ve been three. Dr. Benden continued his exam carefully, and found a slight bullet graze on hyena’s left hip. No other injuries, and the animal was in excellent condition.

His techs were shaving the area around the wounds, and the blood flow was fairly slow, so it appeared that only veins had been damaged instead of arteries. This might have a successful conclusion. “Get him draped and prepped for surgery,” Dr. Benden said. “I’m going to scrub in.”

Natalie turned to him and said, “I’ve got Dr. Stevenson from the zoo on the line.”

Great, thank you,” Dr. Benden said, and stripped off his bloody exam gloves to tuck the phone between his shoulder and his ear, then he spoke while washing his hands thoroughly. “Morning, Jeff, I’ve got a male spotted hyena with a GSW through the thoracic cavity. Is there anything I should know before I head into surgery, or can I treat this as a weirdly-shaped dog?”

To his credit, Dr. Stevenson didn’t ask why a hyena was in the veterinary ER at four in the morning. “Better think of it as a very big cat. The hyaenidae are more feline than canine. Treating trauma should be fairly routine. They do get a little touchy about anesthesia, be sure to have a reversal on hand and keep him as light as you can.”

Great, thanks,” Dr. Benden said, scrubbing under his nails. “Aspiration risk typical?”

Yes, but you might get lucky. Ask the owner how long since he’s eaten. Their natural diet involves periods of fasting, and in a zoo setting they go a significant time between meals. Of course, if the owner is who I think it is, they’re not exactly in a zoo setting. Our keeper, who’s dealt with her before, did mention they’re fed pretty much accordingly to zoo guidelines. She treats them like pets, though, so he might’ve had a cupcake for a snack or something.”

Let’s keep the owner quiet for now,” Dr. Benden said. “She’s sitting in my lobby with the other hyena, and I know she’s armed. I’d rather not make her more anxious than she already is.”

Smart decision. She’s never caused a problem here, until the last time.”

Dr. Benden paused. “What was the problem last time?”

Dr. Stevenson’s voice was dry. “It wasn’t her, it was her friend in green. They brought an armed security guard with them, and when my keeper realized someone was in the building and went to investigate, the guard tried to shoot my keeper. Thankfully we had Red Hood and the Blur on site, and that girl’s faster than bullets. No one was hurt. We just had to patch some bullet holes in the wall of the quarantine building.”

Sighing, Dr. Benden said, “If I thought it could be resolved bloodlessly, I’d say call the cops and have them send in a Bat. For everyone’s safety, including the animal’s, let’s just keep everything nice and quiet for now.”

Understood. As far as I’m concerned, this call never happened. Just ring me later on and let me know you’re all right, okay?”

Will do,” Dr. Benden said. Natalie took the phone from him, since his hands were now sterile, and he gloved up. He looked at the receptionist’s wide eyes, and decided it was better not to send a nervous receptionist to ask Quinn when her pet had last eaten. He glanced around the room and settled on one of his steadiest techs. “Kerry, would you ask Ms. Quinn when this animal last ate? And advise her that we’re heading into surgery?”

Sure, Dr. Benden,” the young woman said. “Should I get a blood sample from the other hyena and do an immediate-spin cross-match, in case we need a transfusion?”

Dr. Benden looked at her, impressed but not entirely surprised. All of his staff were in this business because of their devotion to animals, and the emergency clinic did see a fair number of exotics as well. Treating a venom lab’s black mamba with stomatitis, as he and Kerry had done last year, tended to make even the notorious Harley Quinn seem less dangerous. “If you think you can do it safely,” he replied.

She nodded and went out, as Dr. Benden got to work.

 

 

Harley sat in the lobby alone, except for Lou licking her hands nervously. She’d grabbed a nylon slip-leash from the counter and put it over his head, but honestly, a thin leash like that would just burn her hands if he really decided to pull. “It’s gonna be okay, Lou,” Harley whispered, leaning over so she could kiss the top of his head. “Bud’s a big strong boy. He’s gonna be okay.” Lou whimpered softly.

It had all happened so fast, and started so suddenly. One moment it had been a normal night. Joker had been up late, planning and plotting their next big scheme. Harley knew he’d be grumpy if he didn’t get any sleep, and besides, she wanted some attention. And his company. She’d tried sauntering through the room in nothing but lingerie, but Joker hadn’t noticed her. So she’d hopped up on the table, and murmured in her most seductive voice that it was getting late. Joker had told her to go away, and so she did, ditching the lingerie for something more comfortable: an old t-shirt and pajama pants.

A few hours after that , he still hadn’t come to bed, and she couldn’t fall asleep alone. Harley always waited up for him, just in case he was interested after all, or wanted to talk, or needed anything from her. Besides, if he came in and found her asleep, he was liable to play a prank on her, and sometimes he didn’t think those pranks through. Handcuffing her to the headboard was funny, sure, but not so much when she woke up and needed to go to the bathroom and he’d already left for the day.

So Harley had tried, one more time, to convince him to come to bed. She walked up to his desk where he was studying diagrams of the Gotham’s power system, and stood behind Joker’s chair for a moment. Then she slipped her arms over his shoulders, and leaned against his back, murmuring, “Hey, Puddin’, dontcha wanna come to bed?” she asked.

Or tried to, because halfway through the sentence he’d exploded.

The moment she touched him, Joker leapt out of his seat and whirled on her. “Harley! Goddammit, how many times have I told you about creepin’ up on me like that?!” he roared.

The answer was none , as a matter of fact, but she should’ve seen it coming. She hadn’t actually snuck up on him, she’d had to walk past the front of the desk coming in the room, he’d just been so intently focused that he didn’t see her. When Joker was in the middle of a complicated plan, he disappeared inside his own head, and she knew that. She should’ve known that her attempt to cuddle and cajole would startle him, and no genius liked being interrupted.

So Harley had shrunk in on herself, whimpering, “Sorry!” even before he hit her.

Wham! Right in the gut, and she’d gasped for the air he’d driven out of her. That might’ve been all, but Joker narrowed his eyes and glared at her, finally seeing the t-shirt she wore. It was her old Gotham U shirt, and Joker snarled, “I fuckin’ hate that shirt, you look like some dumb frat-rat’s broad wearing it. Look at it, it’s got holes in it. Dammit, Harley, how come you have to dress like a slob?!”

She wheezed, with no defense, and an uncharitable part of her mind sneered that he hadn’t noticed the three-hundred-dollar lingerie set she was wearing earlier. Why’d he have to notice the old t-shirt?

It didn’t matter, because he was really pissed then, and he started swinging. The first blow to the head made her ears ring, and then she was too unsteady to hunch down in a little ball the way she usually did. Harley staggered back, and he came after her, swatting at her with casual, brutal blows.

Another shot to the face dropped her to the floor, and he’d kicked her belly, what little breath she’d managed to snatch back whooshing out of her. And then he was on her, sitting on her middle, his hands wrapped around her throat.

They played that game in bed, sometimes, and he knew exactly how long to cut off her air to make her go off like an entire fireworks factory. But this time, she hadn’t started with any oxygen in her lungs, and Harley struggled instinctively. Joker growled, ignoring the weak blows of her fists, and tightened his throttling hands. Her vision had started to narrow to pinpoints, the dark rushing in, when Joker abruptly disappeared.

Harley had gasped, tearing precious air into her lungs, her throat sore and her eyes stinging. She’d rolled over to see Joker on his back, Bud on top of him, the hyena growling and shaking Joker’s left arm in his jaws. Lou was right there, too, with Joker’s foot in his teeth, tearing apart the good leather of his shoe. “Bud, Lou, no !” she screamed, her heart seizing.

They both let him go, but Bud’s hackles stayed up and all his teeth showed in a ferocious snarl. Lou stayed next to his brother, head down and making low noises between a growl and a nervous titter. They both stood their ground between Harley and Joker, and she tried to get to her feet, to pull them away, to put them safely behind her.

You miserable mongrel,” Joker spat, and drew his gun. Lou broke and ran at the first shot, but Bud fell down.

Harley didn’t really remember the next part too well. It was all disjointed, like separate clips taken from a longer movie, and all of it was dominated by that terrible image of Bud falling down. She remembered screaming. She remembered throwing herself at Bud, trying to get him up. She remembered Joker yanking her up by the hair and flinging her aside, taking aim at Bud again. “Teach you to bite me,” he’d muttered, and somehow Harley had fetched up against the chair, and she’d lifted it over her head, bringing it down on Joker’s gun arm as he fired.

Lifting it again. Bringing it down again. Going after him with her fists when the chair broke. The rest was a red haze until he stopped moving, and then she stepped over him, thinking only of Bud. She’d picked him up somehow and staggered out, calling Lou, trying to remember where the ER vet was.

Now she was sitting in her pajamas and her jacket – when had she grabbed the jacket? Another thing she couldn’t remember – in the lobby, barefooted, her hair a mess and blood all over her hands. Mostly Bud’s, she thought. Maybe some of Joker’s. Maybe some of her own, she sure hurt enough.

One of the techs walked out, and Harley tensed, but the woman’s expression was calm. “He’s in surgery,” she began. “The doctor wants to know when was the last time he ate – we had to intubate him, and we want to make sure the risk of aspiration is minimized.”

Harley scrubbed a hand over her face, trying to remember. “They both ate yesterday morning, so it’s been … I dunno, sixteen hours? Oh, wait, and he had a little snack, a cow femur, at about seven last night.” She kept seeing Bud lying so still, in a puddle of blood.

Okay, that’s good,” the tech said soothingly. “He’s lost some blood. The doctor wants me to run what’s called an immediate-spin cross-match to see if the other one there is a compatible donor. Do you think he’ll let me take blood without sedation?”

Staring at the woman, whose name tag read ‘Kerry,’ Harley said, “You know who I am, right?”

Yes. I just don’t see that it matters right now,” she replied with shrug. Then again, this was Gotham. The residents had a fairly high tolerance for super-villain shenanigans. “I also try to discourage people from keeping exotics as pets, but they’re here now and they need my help. Giving you a lecture on why hyenas don’t make good pets would make about as much sense as freaking out over your rap sheet. So, do you think he’ll let me take a blood sample?”

Harley sighed, and stood up, wincing as an ache in her ribs made itself known. “Yeah, if I hold ‘im. I can’t exactly take these guys to a vet, I had to do all their shots and stuff myself. They’re used to me handling ‘em.”

All right, let me tell Dr. Benden about the food, and I’ll be right back.” Kerry was as good as her word, leading Harley to one of the treatment rooms. Harley made Lou sit, and stood over him, holding his head up. He whined, and to her surprise the tech scratched his shoulder gently. “Easy, big guy, just let me shave your leg here.”

Hush, Lou,” Harley said. “They’re brothers – hopefully that means it’s more likely they have the same blood group.”

Kerry nodded, shaved a patch of his foreleg, and Harley reached down to wrap her thumb around the top of his leg, just below the elbow. Doing so temporarily stopped the circulation in the big brachial vein, which helped make it easier to find to draw blood or place an IV. It was the same principle as the rubber tube wrapped around a human patient’s upper arm. Lou didn’t struggle, only whining softly as the tech put in an IV and drew two vials of blood. “I’m gonna leave the IV in, in case we do need to transfuse. You did good, Lou. Good boy, brave boy,” Kerry said soothingly, patting his shoulder.

Harley let go, and the big hyena crawled under her chair. She was feeling very out of sorts by then. She wasn’t used to be treated as ‘normal’ unless she was covered in makeup to hide her too-pale complexion and straining every ounce of acting ability she had to fit in. So far the vet staff had all behaved as if she were just a typical Gothamite coming in with a dog or something. She caught Kerry’s eye, and said, “Hey … thank you. And, um, would you tell the lady who was behind the desk I’m sorry I pulled a gun on her?”

Sure, I’ll tell her when I go run this,” the tech said. She looked Harley over, and frowned a little. “Um … do you need a doctor, too?”

Harley laughed. “This ain’t the first or the worst, hon. I’ll be fine, I’m not bleedin’ anywhere important. I bet I look a mess, though.”

The tech looked at her shrewdly. “Those bruises on your neck are going to be very impressive once they’re fully developed. And you’ll have a black eye, too. Do you have someone you can call to help you with the hyenas?”

Yeah,” Harley said, and then winced. “If she answers her phone. If not, I might need some help loading Bud in the car, then we’re outta your hair. I, um, I can’t give you an address for the bill. But here, take my number. I’ll make sure it gets paid.” The tech took her number, and then left her alone in the exam room.

She pulled out her phone, realized she was getting blood on it, and wiped her hands on her pants. Harley dialed, and listened to it ring … and ring … and ring. Eventually an impersonal message came on, telling her the number she’d dialed was unavailable. She waited for the beep, and then said, “Hey Pammy. Look, I … I need your help. I’m at the Riverside Vet ER. Bud, he … he got shot. They’re tryin’ to save him but I don’t … I don’t know for sure… Pam, please . I need you.” Much to her surprise, she broke into tears again, and disconnected the call.

Lou pressed up against her, licking her face worriedly. “It’s okay, baby, Mommy’s gonna be okay,” Harley whispered. “So’s your big brother. It’s all gonna be okay.” Even if she couldn’t quite believe it herself, she tried to reassure Lou, who was depending completely on her now.

 

 

From Gotham General, Batman spoke quietly into his comm. “His injuries are extensive. Complex fracture of the left radius and ulna, multiple fractures in the right wrist, multiple fractures in both hands, some of which may indicate offensive blows before or during this fight. Multiple broken ribs, a broken jaw, and a fractured skull with cerebral edema. Also a severely lacerated left forearm, with tissue damage that resembles a crushing injury. They have him in surgery now, trying to alleviate the cranial pressure.”

Someone beat the holy hell out of him,” Oracle murmured. “Any idea who? I’m not seeing anything on the police frequencies.”

Nothing. He was unconscious when they dropped him off – and they were scared enough to drive into the ambulance bay, unload him, and leave him by the doors. We’ll round up some of his known associates tomorrow and see what we can learn. So far, it looks like something within his organization.” Batman was trying to keep as low a profile as possible, although his black uniform didn’t lend itself to concealment in a brightly-lit hospital with off-white walls.

Where’s Harley?” Oracle asked.

Batman clenched his jaw. “I saw no sign of her. She might’ve been taken by whoever did this. Or they might’ve killed her.”

A pause, and Oracle said, “Hood and Blur’s comms have been stationary since the end of patrol. They didn’t go out looking for trouble after she got that phone call.”

This isn’t their style, anyway. No bullet wounds, no burns. It was someone else,” Bruce said. With that he signed off, and returned to watching over his enemy. At least the medical staff were treating him with professionalism. There had to be a lot of tension in that operating room; no trauma surgeon in Gotham could escape seeing Joker’s handiwork. For Bruce, whose father had been a doctor, that oldest credo still rang true. First, do no harm. And after that, it had always been Thomas Wayne’s opinion that a doctor was not supposed to judge a patient. Simply do the best they could, for each one, regardless of circumstance.

 

 

Dr. Benden had just finished closing up, and Kerry was running whole blood into the still-sedated hyena. Luckily his brother had been a match, there’d been no agglutination in the test tube when she ran the cross-match, and Lou had let them draw blood. By some crazy stroke of luck the bullet had hit nothing vital on its way through Bud’s body. The margin by which it missed the aorta and the lung had been terrifyingly narrow, though.

The veterinarian was about to ask after their client – animals were patients, people were clients – when Natalie came running into the back again, wild-eyed. “Great, now Poison Ivy is literally standing out there knocking on the front door. I don’t know if I can handle this, Dr. Benden!”

Relax,” he told her, glancing at Kerry. “It was either going to be her or Joker. I doubt Ms. Quinn can call up a neighbor to help her get this animal out of her car.”

Behind them in the lobby, they heard Harley’s voice raised in a glad cry of, “ Red! You came! Oh my God I thought you weren’t coming, thank you thank you thank you !” And then the sound of the door unlocking.

I’ll handle them,” Dr. Benden said. “And – good work, people. There aren’t many veterinary teams in the country who could handle a gunshot hyena at four in the morning. I proud to work with all of you.”

He stripped off his gloves again, having learned early in his career not to let clients see their pets’ blood, and headed into the hallway. The clinic cat, Raisin, was standing there with her back arched and all her fur on end, staring at the other hyena, whose leash Harley Quinn had dropped when her friend showed up. Dr. Benden cleared his throat. “I’d appreciate it if you restrained Lou, here.”

Harley, who was still hugging the tall green-skinned redhead, whirled around. “Lou, no , leave the cat alone. We had this conversation, your Auntie Catwoman gets real mad when you chase cats. Sorry, Doc.” She caught him, sounding chagrined like any other distracted pet owner, and asked, “Is Bud … is he gonna be okay?”

He’s stable and out of surgery. I’m going to give him the reversal in a moment, but I’d like to get him out of the back to do it. Sometimes they’re unpredictable when they wake up, and I have other patients back there.” He met her eyes when he spoke, seeing an almost pathetic gratitude in them, and the love that people had for their pets was what had gotten him into this business in the first place. Even if the client in question had a rap sheet as long as his arm, and her sanity was extremely dubious, and the pet he’d just operated on happened to be a wild animal that had been used to commit several crimes.

And then he looked past her, at one of Gotham’s most lethal villains. Now was a bad time to remember that Dr. Stevenson had said she was the cause of the trouble, the last time the zoo had dealt with Harley and her hyenas. “Thank you, Doctor,” Poison Ivy said, and Dr. Benden decided that his standard policy of showing no fear to any animal also applied to humans. And metahumans.

Yeah, thank you,” Harley echoed. “I dunno how to repay you. I’d hug you but I’m all bloody. Just … wow, thank you so much.” She grabbed his hand and shook it enthusiastically.

On the topic of repayment, there’s a briefcase of cash sitting on your counter,” Poison Ivy said. “I hope that will cover it.”

I can’t…” Dr. Benden began, and she shook her head.

It’s already laundered, untraceable bills. Don’t worry about dirty money. In my experience it all spends the same. Use the remaining balance for charity, if you have to.” She spoke dryly, and looked on the whole situation with a world-weary gaze.

Thanks, Pammy,” Harley said, and at a sharp glance, she covered her mouth. “Oops. Sorry, Red. I mean, I’ll pay ya back for this. I promise.”

Don’t worry about it,” the redhead sighed. “Come on, let’s get him home.”

Harley seemed to deflate a little. “I really mean it, you know. Thank you . For doin’ all this, and comin’ to my rescue. Again.”

Again,” Ivy echoed. “I always do, Harley. Enough of the soap opera, let the doctor do his work.”

Dr. Benden nodded. “I’ll bring him to treatment room one. You might want to keep the other one away until he’s completely awake; animals can be aggressive toward a pack member that’s behaving strangely.”

Harley looked at her friend hopefully, and Ivy sighed again, holding out her hand for the leash. “Come on, Lou. And Doctor, just for the sake of amusement, how far behind me are the police?” 

He met her gaze, and it was unsettlingly like that of some of his patients. Highly intelligent, of course, capable of reason, but there was no sense of empathy there, no acknowledgment of shared humanity. Most mammals, even the undomesticated ones, looked into his eyes with a hopeful expression, trying to forge a connection. This woman felt no such thing, nor wanted it.

I saw no need to alert the police,” he told her. He’d faced down some cold and frightening creatures in his time, and drew on his professional certainty now as he had then. “I judged that doing so would be a greater danger to my staff, and to the injured animal, than simply treating him as we were asked to do.”

She tilted her head a little, looking at him more intently. “Then you are a rarer specimen than I’d thought. Perhaps Batman could learn a thing or two from you. Good, if we’re not interrupted, we can leave without any further disruption of your evening.”

He nodded to her, and she walked back out to the lobby with the smaller hyena leaning against her shins, as Harley went into exam room one to await her injured pet.

One thing Dr. Benden was certain of; if anyone believed this story, he’d probably never have to buy his own drinks again.

 

Chapter Text

This isn’t staying safe. The thought hounded Steph every moment they were on surveillance. Cass was being cautious, but the places she chose to observe from were … really not that safe. Steph always felt a breath away from discovery, hiding on a rooftop or in an alley, or just watching from the market a few stalls away. They were just too close, most of the time.

The conversations they overheard kept hinting at something underground, something Shiva wanted. Steph wondered at first if they meant the sea caves; she’d been researching the country in her spare time, and there were some archaeologically significant caves along the coast. But no, the men also mentioned their goal was south.

If Shiva was about to move, following her could get real interesting. The Libyan desert was one of the hottest and driest in the world, and trying to cross it in pursuit would be really damn difficult, at least without alerting any of Shiva’s people to the fact that they were being followed.

She and Cass sat up one night talking about it, eating shorba and trying to figure out their next move. Observation only, Babs had said, but they weren’t able to observe much at the moment. And if their target moved, they’d lose her. Steph trawled her spoon through the bowl, turning over the vegetables and lamb meat. “Following them is gonna be a problem. First we have to figure out where they’re going, because we won’t be able to stick close enough to track them. Then we have to get there ourselves.”

Cass swallowed a spoonful of the soup, and looked at Steph. “Could solve both at once. Let her take me.”

Steph shuddered. It was an elegant solution, but letting themselves get caught and taken to the next destination as captives was not a good idea in her book. “One, get over the ‘me’ thing. I’m with you every step of the way, Cass. You’re not going up against her alone. Two, what makes you think she’d take us with her, if she did catch us?”

Cass sat back, looking at her for a long moment. Her eyes were so dark that they seemed endless somehow, as if there was far more wisdom behind them than there should’ve been for her years. Sometimes she really was about to come out with something incredibly insightful; sometimes she was just looking for the words to explain what was on her mind. Steph chewed a piece of lamb, raising an eyebrow. “Shiva and I … not finished,” Cass finally said, and shook her head. “Would take me. You … don’t know.”

She gave a snort of amusement. “Yeah, I’m not anywhere near your caliber or hers. She’d probably just smack me upside the head and turn me loose. Or kill me and dump me behind a sand dune. But even if she does take you with her, how do we know she’d go after whatever this underground thing is?”

Shaking her head, Cass replied, “No matter. My business, with her. Not underground.”

“Well, I want to know what brought her here,” Steph said. “It’s probably important. She’s not here for the beaches, after all. Whatever she wants underground could be something B-man needs to know about.”

Cass trawled her spoon through the stew, frowning to herself. “Not important, if she stops.”

“And you think her running across you would make her stop?” Steph asked, her eyebrows rising skeptically.

I stop her,” Cass said, with chilling confidence.

“Look, I know you’re orders of magnitude more badass than me,” Steph said urgently. “But taking down Lady Shiva isn’t a sure thing for anyone. Didn’t she almost kill you, the last time?”

“Did kill,” Cass corrected. “Restarted heart. Survived. Shiva wants … rematch.”

Steph’s jaw dropped. Somehow that little tidbit of information hadn’t made its way to her ears. “Wait just a damn minute, she literally killed you, resuscitated you, and basically wants to do it again? And you’re out here talking about letting her catch you?!”

Cass put the stew aside, and reached out for Steph’s hands. She did that whenever she felt like she wouldn’t get the words right, as if she could communicate with touch more eloquently than speech. It worked, more often than not. “I am better now,” she said, with quiet urgency. “Stronger. More trained. Ready.”

And here was Steph, stuck in the middle of a vendetta between two of the top ten martial artists on the planet. Great . She sighed and tipped her head back. “All of a sudden, Crown Point is starting to look like a nice quiet spot to retire to. Jesus. The difference is, Cass, there’s no holding back; she’ll actually kill you. It’s all about the fight itself, to Shiva.”

“This fight must be,” Cass told her. “Shiva and I, alone. Tomorrow, next month, next year. Cannot stop, only put off. I am ready now. She must stop.”

“Fine, but you’re not going after her without some real backup,” Steph shot back, squeezing her slim fingers for emphasis. “You need more in your corner than a half-crippled third-rate sidekick who got fired from being Robin.”

Cass scowled thunderously at her. “Stephanie. No. You are better than you say.”

“No, honey, I’m just being realistic,” Steph said with a fatalistic shrug. “If you’re determined to go up against her, we need the big guns. I can’t help you, but I’m damn sure not gonna lose you, either.”

“No big guns,” Cass said. “No Bats. Only interfere.”

Steph did some quick calculating. She couldn’t call in Oracle without Cass knowing. “Then at least hold off until we know what she wants down here, okay? If it’s something big enough, we have to let the Bats know – and since we don’t even know what it is, but Shiva does, we can let her sniff it out. Then we’ll call this in, and you can have your showdown with her knowing that there’s backup on the way.”

Cass thought about it, and finally nodded, lifting Steph’s hand to kiss her scarred knuckles. “Patience. Not easy.”

“Never is,” Steph chuckled. Cass leaned in to kiss her, and that stopped the conversation – for the moment.

If Cass thought she actually believed that easy acquiescence, she seriously underestimated Steph’s intelligence. All she’d done just now was buy a little more time. The obsession Cass had with her birth mother went both ways, apparently, but it put Steph’s hackles up to thinking of them finally confronting each other.

The bald truth was, Cass’ motto was ‘nobody dies’. And Shiva’s might as well have been ‘everybody dies’. Almost everybody, anyway. And in a fight between two highly skilled combatants, one of whom was willing to use lethal force and one who wasn’t, the killer sometimes won because the other fighter was practicing restraint.

And Steph was not gonna let that happen to Cass. Not on her watch.

 

 

Kala woke with the dawn, as ever, and ignored it for a moment to snuggle in Jay’s arms. With her whole world seeming to crumble, at least he felt strong and sure and safe. KLK had a show tonight, and then she’d be in the hotel, alone, listening to Derek pace in his room and the boys whisper worriedly among themselves. She wasn’t looking forward to either of those things. It rattled her, not to even look forward to the stage. She’d always loved performing, even as a little kid, and to find herself reluctant to leave tonight just hurt.

And it was her birthday, and she wasn’t even looking forward to that. She couldn’t sneak home to Mom and Dad until the weekend, and the boys would probably get her a cake and some gifts, but overall it didn’t feel like a birthday. Sebast wasn’t going to get his grandmother to ship them some fried plaintains, and he wouldn’t be making his usual increasingly ridiculous birthday toasts to her. Right up until the actual celebration, he should’ve been dragging her around to the schlockiest tourist traps he could find, just to keep her off the bus and out of the hotel long enough for everyone else to set up the party. It was thanks to him that she’d seen stuff like Carhenge and the world’s largest ball of twine.

Kala rubbed her eyes. She was not going to cry, dammit.

Jay must’ve felt her move, because he wrapped himself around her tighter. “Morning,” he grumbled, nuzzling her hair.

“Good morning,” Kala said, trying to sound normal, but he sat up worriedly. She shook her head before he could even ask. “Don’t pay any attention to me, it’s just megrims. I’ll be all right.”

“You better,” Jay said, and yawned hugely. “Sorry. Yeah, you have to be okay. I’m counting on you to swoop in and save my ass the next time I do something dumb.”

“You are fully capable of saving your own ass, and we both know it,” she said fondly.

“Yeah, but you look good doing it,” Jay teased, and she gave him a smile.

He kissed her, a quick peck because neither of them had brushed their teeth yet, and rolled over to check his phone while Kala got up and headed into the bathroom. “Morning scotch breath avoidance, thank you,” she laughed, grabbing the toothbrush she kept over here.

“Hey, we can’t all have that perfect Kryptonian metabolism – fuck!”

Jay’s profane yelp brought her out with a mouthful of foam, but he was just staring at his phone. “What the fuck is this shit?” Jay complained. “Joker’s in the ER? Dammit, why couldn’t I be the one to land his ass there?”

Kala looked at him with a frown, and Jay chuckled. “You look rabid, K.”

“What the hell is going on?” Kala asked, and continued brushing her teeth standing in the middle of his bedroom area.

Jay scrolled through messages. “Someone beat the living shit out of Joker last night. His goons dropped him at the hospital. He had emergency surgery this morning for a fractured skull and brain swelling. Bruce was there all night, but no one showed up or claimed credit. According to this, which I’m getting from Babs, Gotham General’s not even sure he’ll wake up.”

“Good riddance,” Kala said, and went back into the bathroom to spit out the toothpaste. It was probably eating at Jay, that someone else had half-killed his nemesis, and that worried her.

He proved her right with his next words. “If anyone gets to beat him to a bag of blood and bone fragments, by rights it should be me. But oh well. Either he’ll die, and I’ll piss on his grave, or he’ll live, and I’ll have another chance at him. Now I wanna know who did it.”

Kala rinsed her mouth out and spat. “He’s got the survival skills of a cockroach, Jay. Not that that should be comforting. Personally I’ll be happier if he dies.” She only hoped her father wasn’t listening for her this morning.

“I can’t say I’ll be mad if he buys it,” Jay said, sounding philosophical. “Where the hell was Harley during this? I’m surprised whoever worked him over didn’t put her in a hospital, too. Or a morgue. She’s real good at jumping in front of danger for him.”

Kala paused. “What if it was Harley who did it?”

Jay scoffed. “Harley? She’d never turn on him. She’s too brainwashed. He’s beaten whatever survival instinct she had left out of her.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Kala said, coming out of the bathroom. “A woman cornered is a dangerous beast indeed, and brainwashing isn’t always a hundred percent effective. I’ve proven that.” She managed a smile on the last words, but even if that hypothesis was true, it was still bad news.

Jay looked at her, and nodded slowly. “I’ve seen her hospital records. As if I needed another reason to hate him, he’s the kind of asshole that takes everything out on his woman, and I’ve never been able to stand those guys. Every one of them needs to run a gauntlet on Themyscira, let the Amazons beat some sense into them. Or just kill ‘em. If Harley finally snapped and turned on him, well … I can forgive her for stealing my prerogative. Hell. Good for her, if she did it.”

Kala sighed. “Yeah, I should probably say that no one deserves a beating like that but … we both know I don’t believe it. I hope it was Harley. Babs said something about her once, that when she’s with Ivy she’s more predictable.”

“And Babs ran intel for the Suicide Squad,” Jay mused. “She’s worked with Harley before. Personally, I wouldn’t trust her. I’ve run across her a few times, and as far as I can tell, she’s crazier than the Clown. She might be smarter, too.”

“Babs said that, too,” Kala remembered. “She also said Harley might be useful.”

Jay snorted a laugh. “With my luck, Babs’ll mail Harley a comm and a box of Alfred’s cookies, try and get her on the team. It worked for me.”

“Is that how she recruited you?” Kala asked, smiling.

He nodded. “The peanut butter cookies, too. She’s ruthless.”

Kala went over to him and hugged him. “I’m glad she is. It got you back home.”

Jay’s arms around her felt heavenly, and his kiss on the top of her head made her smile. “Nah, that was you. Babs got me working with Bruce and the boys. I didn’t start hanging around the Manor until you came along.”

“Guess I’m good for something, then,” Kala said lightly.

Jay smacked her butt for that. “You’re good for a lot of things.”

She drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Tell that to Sebast.”

“You know what?” Jay caught her upper arms and held her away from him to stare at her. “One, Sebast already knows that. Two, his issue with you is mostly his fault, as I see it. Shit, I don’t talk about stuff if I can help it, and I managed to make a move before you left. He should’ve manned up.”

Kala rolled her eyes. “You made a move in the airport, Jay. And only because Dick basically forced you to drive me.”

“I still made a move,” he said. “It counts. If I had my way, I would’ve done a whole lotta movin’ the night before. Maybe even moved your bed halfway across the room.”

One eyebrow arched, Kala looked at him skeptically. “Uh-huh. I seem to recall I had to chase you home on your birthday, too. And damn near throw you through a wall to get you to admit there was something here.”

For an instant, his expression was hunted, as if she were talking about something far more serious and dangerous than getting him to admit he wanted her. Then Jay shrugged, giving her a small smile. “What can I say? I was pretty sure you’d shoot me down. Look, neither of us is real good at communication outside the field or the bedroom, K. You didn’t answer my voicemail, and I didn’t say anything else.”

“We seem to be communicating pretty well right now,” she pointed out.

Jay nodded. “We’re also in my bedroom.”

She rolled her eyes in exasperation, and they both heard her phone chirp several times in quick succession. “That’s probably my family texting their birthday wishes,” she said.

Jay caught her chin and kissed her. “Happy birthday, by the way. When do you have to go back? I can hook you up with a temporary present. I’ll even wrap it.”

“You horndog,” she laughed. That was just the lighthearted distraction she needed. “I should really go. Derek and the boys will be waking up in a couple hours, and the guys will want to celebrate. I need a little more sleep than I got, too.”

Jay hugged her close again. “Well, if I can’t have you today, when can you fly back? Gives me a chance to get you a real gift. I’ll talk Alfred into baking a cake.”

Kala kissed his cheek. “I’ll be back the weekend. As for gifts, you’re the one thing keeping my head straight lately. That’s gift enough. I won’t say no to Alfred’s baking, though.”

“No one does. But if I’m keeping you sane, K, you have some big problems. I’m not qualified to judge most people’s sanity, much less help them hold onto it.”

She nudged her nose against his. “No one asked you to judge. Just … be here. Like you have been. I need that.”

Jay gave her an extra squeeze. “I will be. It’s just … I’m not used to thinking of myself as someone anybody can rely on. Least of all someone like you.”

Kala cupped his face in her hands and stared at him. “I’m not telling you… Jay, you have zero responsibility for me. All I’m asking is for you to be here.”

“Not going anywhere,” he replied. “Look, I wouldn’t leave Gotham even with Batman trying to hunt me down. And the last time I did leave, it was to see you. I think we’re set.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, remembering Denver. “So keep doing what you’re doing. And just … give yourself some credit, Jay.”

“What, and become as arrogant as Bruce?” he teased. “Not fuckin’ likely. I’m a cocky asshole, but I’m not that bad.” Both of them laughed at the comparison.

 

 

Bud was snoring, and by the look on Harley’s face, it was the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard. Pam watched them both; she had only barely prevented the convalescing hyena from being installed on her bed. Instead Bud lolled on the couch, his chest and side bandaged, large rectangles of fur shaven off. Harley sat on the floor beside him, petting his head, and Lou snuggled up to her, occasionally sniffing his brother’s feet as if to make sure he was still there, still all right.

Pam watched them for a while, then went to get her first aid kit. “Harley, come here,” she said gently. When the blonde looked up at her blankly, she couldn’t help a small smile. “You were so worried about Bud, you haven’t bothered with yourself. Come on, let me take care of you.”

“Like you always do,” Harley said sadly, but got up and followed her into the bathroom. She sat on the closed lid of the commode under the bright fluorescent light, which only made her bruises more obvious. Pam checked her over thoroughly. Her eye was swelling shut, her lip was split, she had a magnificent necklace of bruises in exactly the shape of Joker’s strangling hands, and once she took off her shirt, her ribs and belly were bruised, too. There was a perfect shoe print just below her sternum.

Pam had a stethoscope of her own, and listened carefully to Harley’s breathing. The bruises on her ribcage likely meant broken ribs, and luckily her breathing was clear, so none of them were poking her lungs. Last, she looked at Harley’s hands, and winced. Two fingers were clearly broken. “Harl, those have to be set,” she said.

“I know,” Harley sighed, and nodded. “Just do it, Pam.”

So she did, and couldn’t help looking at Harley’s face right after she’d tugged the bones back into alignment. Her eyes were screwed shut, and she let out a little whimper. Any normal person would’ve yelled, but Harley’s pain tolerance was high. Pam touched her cheek, and heard a clatter of claws on the floor behind her.

Lou shoved his way into the small room, whining, and Harley laughed. “It’s okay, Lou-baby. My Babaloo-boy. Mommy’s fine. Auntie Pam’s just helpin’ me get fixed up.” He licked at her tears, then turned and shoved his big blocky head into Pam’s hip, letting out a worried little groan.

“Settle down, you silly creature,” she scolded, petting the top of his head. “Lou, go sit down. I need room to work.”

“Go on, Lou,” Harley said, and he sat down in the hallway, still whining. “He’s been cryin’ like that ever since Bud got shot. I think he’s traumatized, Pammy.”

“He’ll be fine once Bud wakes up,” Pam assured her, though she knew no such thing. Reassurance was more important than facts, just now. She carefully splinted the two broken fingers, noticing Harley’s split and bruised knuckles. As much as she hated to ask the question, she needed to know. “Harley, where’s Joker?”

Harley blinked at her, and a spark of hatred lit up her eyes. “I dunno, and I don’t give a rat’s ass,” she spat.

That was … new. Harley had declared her intention to leave him and never go back before, but she’d always wanted to know where he was. Pam touched her throat gently, and asked, “What happened?”

The blonde swallowed, and tears started to well up. “He shot Bud,” she whispered. “We had a fight, and he … he hit me, you know, and Bud went for him. So he shot him. He shot my baby, Pammy. I couldn’t … he was gonna shoot ‘im again and I couldn’t lose Bud and I already gave up too much t’ be with him and he was gonna kill my baby…”

Pam stroked her hair, matted with blood as it was, and reflected that they both knew why her sister in Brooklyn was raising a blonde-haired green-eyed little girl named Lucy. Only Harley never let herself speak of it, and as far as Pam could tell, Joker didn’t even know he was a father. The hyenas had become surrogate children for Harley, and by shooting one, Joker had shown his true colors in a way Harley couldn’t deny, ignore, justify, or forgive. “It’s okay, Harley. Bud’s gonna be fine, Joker won’t hurt him anymore.”

“No, he won’t,” Harley said, the tears gone as her voice turned steely. “Mistah J might not hurt anybody ever again, maybe.”

Wild hope rose in Pam’s chest, and she looked down at Harley, trying not to let it show in her eyes. “What do you mean?”

Harley grinned at her, a feral baring of teeth that looked too much like Joker’s own smile for comfort. “I didn’t exactly take the time to check if he was still breathin’ when I left. I hope he’s not. I hope he’s dead. You were right, Pammy, everything you told me out loud and in my head, you were right. I shoulda killed him a long time ago. I shoulda killed him the first time he hit me.”

Pam hugged her close and kissed the top of her head so Harley wouldn’t see her face. “I don’t care what you should’ve done. I only care what you did. And if he’s dead, Harley, that’s going to be better for everyone.”

Harley wrapped her arms around Pam’s waist. “I love you, Pam.”

She couldn’t hold back the tears, and was glad Harley couldn’t see her face. “I love you, too, Harley.”

 

 

Dick burst into the kitchen with his hair still sticking up. “Guys, this is an emergency!” he proclaimed, as Alfred, Bruce, and Tim all looked at him with alarm.

“Is it Joker?” Tim asked, and Bruce visibly tensed. Dick knew he’d been out until dawn, and only managed a few hours of sleep. Then again, that was normal for him. Any information on Joker should have come through him, but everyone was keyed-up after the mysterious attack. No wonder Tim leaped to that conclusion.

Luckily this was something completely different. Dick shook his head decisively. “No, nothing like that. Sorry, it’s a dayside emergency, not a caped emergency. Anyway, I just saw the Facebook notification – Kala’s birthday is today, and we didn’t get her anything!”

“Speak for yourself,” Bruce said calmly. “There’s a dinner reservation tomorrow night in her name, for up to eight guests, at a very exclusive vegetarian restaurant. I would have made it for tonight, but her band is onstage.”

“She’s back on the wagon?” Tim asked, curious.

“She was when I made the arrangement in May,” Bruce replied.

“She’ll eat it anyway,” Dick said dismissively. “Why didn’t you warn us? We could’ve all gotten her something.”

“Because Master Bruce left the task of making the reservation to me,” Alfred said. “And I appear to have neglected to note the date when I did so. I am terribly sorry, gentlemen, I have failed you all.”

Dick narrowed his eyes at Alfred. He didn’t believe that for a second – but given the pranks he and Tim typically played on each other, Alfred might’ve wanted to avoid them turning their sights on Kala.

Meanwhile Tim said, “I got her a gift card to this store, Subculture. It’s a Goth kind of thing. Just like I got Jason one to ThinkGeek. I do all my birthday shopping for the year in January, get it all set up, and the emails go out on the day of.”

Dick rolled his eyes. “That’s … Tim, that’s frighteningly organized and just a little bit, I dunno, cold, maybe?”

“Nobody ever complains about gift cards,” Tim said. “I mean, people say it’s cold, but that way I know they’ll get something they like. You never minded getting a gift card.”

“Yes, but you put it in a card and hide it in my apartment,” Dick replied. “That has a personal touch. And it took me three days to find it last time.”

Tim smiled at that. Bruce, meanwhile, cut in to say, “If you’re quick, you can get something delivered to her hotel room today. They’re on the West Coast somewhere, there are plenty of places that will deliver.”

Dick frowned. “You know, I think I have an idea. Better than a gift card, anyway. In the meantime, I wonder if Jay knows it’s her birthday?”

“She was here last night,” Bruce replied. “I suspect she would’ve told him.”

“He didn’t tell her about his birthday,” Dick pointed out.

“She’s more forthcoming than he is,” Bruce said equably.

Dropping into a seat, Dick just sighed. “Speaking of those two … are we gonna do anything about the fact that they’re ridiculously in love and both seem to be in denial about it? Maybe we could lock them in a safe together or something.”

“If I may offer an opinion?” Alfred said politely, placing coffee before him. All the boys looked up at him intently. “It has been my experience, gentlemen, that unsought relationship advice is never well received. You might do more harm than good, if you try to force them to acknowledge their relationship to your own satisfaction. And make no mistake, it is your satisfaction you are concerned with. Whatever arrangement they have clearly suits both Master Jason and Miss Kala.”

Dick smirked a little. “Well said, Alfred. I’ll keep my nose out of it, then.”

They all turned their attention to breakfast for a while. Dick rubbed his shoulder absently; he had a bruise from landing wrong last night. Or was it the night before? It was hard to tell, sometimes. Bruises were par for the course with both of his jobs.

Tim had finished his first cup of coffee, and as Alfred refilled it, he asked Bruce, “Is there any news on Joker?”

Bruce just shook his head. “Apparently he’s in critical but stable condition, comatose, severely injured, but breathing on his own. The hospital has no idea if he’ll ever regain consciousness. As long as his vitals hold steady, though, they’ll keep him alive on an IV drip and a feeding tube. Gordon has officers on standby in case he does wake up, and he’s in full restraints. I left two listening devices in the room, as well. If anything happens, we’ll know.”

That question – posed while Dick had a mouthful of cereal – and its answer were nowhere near satisfying. “I don’t suppose he’d do us all a favor and pass away peacefully,” Dick said with a sigh.

Bruce poked at his eggs thoughtfully. “He’s recovered from terrible injuries before. I’d almost suspect him of being a metahuman with a healing factor, but repeated blood testing has shown nothing but normal human cells.”

“He’s always been luckier than a sack of cats,” Dick added.

“Everyone’s luck runs out sometime,” Tim replied. “Maybe this is his. What about the perpetrator? Any ideas on that?”

Bruce was sipping his coffee, and put it down to answer. “Jay spoke with Babs earlier this morning. We’ve definitely confirmed it wasn’t him or Kala, but she offered an opinion. She thought Harley might have done it.”

“Harley?” Dick said, raising a skeptical brow. “After everything he’s done to her, and she never so much as talked back to him? I might believe that if she was with Ivy at the time, but the last we heard, Harley had found her way back to Joker and both of them were lying low.”

Bruce shrugged. “It would explain why we have no evidence of Harley being attacked. If she had done so, I would expect another big move from her, and soon. I have Barbara checking into Amanda Waller’s files, in case the Suicide Squad gets a lead on her first. And we’ve run through all her known associates with no luck. Except for Ivy herself. I’m going to go looking for her tonight. There are a handful of possibilities.”

“Harley’s never left Joker for Ivy,” Dick pointed out. “It’s usually Ivy getting her out of the hospital or busting her out of Arkham or just picking her up off the street after Joker’s beaten the hell out of her again. But then, if she’s turned on Joker like Kala suggested, it would make sense for her to go to Ivy.”

“Together, those two could be rehabilitated,” Bruce said quietly. “It’s what we should hope for, at this point.”

Tim looked over at him. “Do you really think Harley and Ivy could be rehabilitated at this point? With everything they’ve done?”

Bruce looked at him steadily. “Yes. When we talk about rehabilitation, what we really mean is redemption. For that to happen, they’d both have to feel remorse for their past actions. They can’t feel remorse unless they have empathy for their victims, and Ivy has been drifting from her humanity since the accident that made her Poison Ivy. Harley ran down one of the darkest holes in the human psyche, chasing Joker, and became a sociopath for whom most other people simply aren’t real. Lives don’t matter to Joker except as counters in a game of his own devising, one where he changes the rules at a whim, and Harley’s been living so far out beyond the rules of normal society for so long that it’s a foreign country to her. I suspect that was part of the initial attraction; according to her case history, Harley always had a rebellious streak, but she ended up following the rules that constrained her. With Joker, she broke them all, and was left with nothing except his whims.”

“That’s really bleak,” Dick said quietly. Bruce didn’t often get philosophical about their foes.

Bruce nodded. “Together, Harley reminds Ivy that she’s human after all – why else would Ivy bother rescuing her? And if Harley can see one person other than her maker as real, then sooner or later she’ll start to realize everyone is real, every person she sees has their own internal life, their own hopes and dreams. Even her victims. As much as I disapprove of Task Force X, Amanda Waller has been doing significant work toward making all of them come to the same conclusion, by getting them to trust and empathize with each other. And when Harley realizes that, I hope she’s either safely in Arkham or Belle Reve, or I’m there.”

“Why?” Tim asked, frowning.

The look on Bruce’s face was grave. “Because no one can carry the weight of all that remorse alone. If Harley truly understands what she’s done, she may decide the best way to atone for ruining so many lives is to end her own.”

Dick and Tim glanced at each other then. Dick was the one to speak, finally. “And you have to save her, if you can. Because you have to save everyone.”

“Yes,” Bruce said with quiet dignity.

Dick thought about calling him on it, unpacking all of that. The way Bruce felt remorse for every failure, every life not saved, every trauma to one of his own people, and how his own brand of atonement meant trying to save everyone, even the villains most would simply write off as a lost cause. Bruce had wanted to bring Jay home, wanted to heal him somehow, even when Jay was doing his level best to destroy everything the Bat stood for. Everyone out there who feared the Bat hadn’t seen the deep compassion that moved him – and the self-recrimination, too.

The other reason he had to save the worst of them all was because on some fundamental level, Bruce didn’t see himself as all that different from them. He believed only his code kept him from becoming a villain himself. Which, technically, they all did break the law on a nightly basis, but they were vigilantes. Not villains. Dick had taken years to figure that out about him … well, to be honest, Babs had figured it out and told him, but as soon as she said it, a lot of things made so much sense.

Dick looked across the table at the man who’d been his father-figure longer, now, than his own father had lived to know him, and just shook his head. It wasn’t worth debating, especially not over breakfast. Some things Bruce just wouldn’t admit.

Tim had evidently been thinking similar things, because he glanced at Dick with a raised eyebrow. Of all the boys, Tim was the most intellectually similar to Bruce himself, though Dick privately thought he was even smarter. For Tim’s sake, Dick grinned and said, “Like Pokemon. Gotta save ‘em all.”

That earned him a laugh and a roll of Tim’s eyes, which was exactly what he’d wanted. Tim could use some levity now and then. That returned them all to some semblance of normalcy.

Until Bruce shattered it with his next words. “The Joker situation means we’ll probably be seeing an upswing in violent crime. His men are either working for Harley now, or leaderless. As the other rogues learn what happened, they’ll be making moves of their own. Two-Face will try to consolidate his hold, and Black Mask must be desperate to escape Blackgate and regain control of his faction. And in the midst of this, we also have a situation developing in Libya with Lady Shiva and the League of Shadows.”

Dick scowled at that. “Great. Hey, we have Talia’s phone number now thanks to the whole kryptonite deal with Mask, right? Why don’t we call her up and have her settle it? League of Shadows stuff is her job, not ours.”

Bruce gave him a quelling look. “Cassandra and Stephanie are in Libya.”

Wincing, Dick replied, “Ouch. That’s right, Doc Leslie said they were tracking some trouble up from South Sudan. I’d bet on Cass against just about anyone … but her mom makes me very nervous.”

Tim spoke then. “Shiva makes everyone nervous. As for Talia, what makes you think she’s not already there? We haven’t seen anything out of Paris lately.”

Dick really frowned then. “The last thing I want is Cass and Steph caught up in a fight between her and Shiva. Can we pull them out of Libya?”

Bruce looked at him somberly. “Barbara could ask, but I doubt Cassandra will leave. Shiva is her mother, and they have plenty of unfinished business. And Stephanie knows that, so she won’t leave Cass’ side. I know Barbara is planning to send one of her Birds if the girls uncover any evidence that would lead them into a conflict. Perhaps we can resolve this without embroiling our people any further.”

“Good luck convincing Cass to leave, whatever they find,” Tim said frankly. “She might listen to you, or Babs, but anyone else? Cass trusts her own judgment, and she won’t walk away from a situation where innocents could get killed.”

Dick groaned. “And of course we have Joker in the ICU in the middle of all of this, otherwise I’d go over there. This is the worst damn timing possible.”

“We’ll do what we have to,” Bruce said. “And trust that all of us – including Cassandra and Stephanie – will look out for themselves and each other.”

Sighing heavily, Dick said, “We could send Jay and Kala over there. She could fly them out in a couple hours and drag both the girls home.”

Bruce shook his head. “I won’t send Jason somewhere Talia might be. She still has influence over him. Likewise, I won’t send Kala anywhere near a Lazarus Pit. That’s too great a risk.”

All of them paused at that. Kala knew what the Pits were, thanks to Jay, and knew to avoid them, but some variables couldn’t be controlled for. If Kala were exposed to it … Dick gave a full body shudder, imagining the Empress in the grip of Lazarus fever. “Yeah, no, let’s not risk that.”

 

Chapter Text

Babs got the news over her police scanner that same morning. She listened to the report, which was vague, then started digging into the archives. It always gave her a bit of a qualm, hacking the GCPD database; it was her father’s job, his calling, and to sneak around here felt like a betrayal.

Commissioner Gordon had accepted the need for Batman and his flock. He could accept that they needed to know things which he couldn’t tell them, in good conscience. The best solution, for his integrity and public safety, was for the best hacker on the team to slip into the archives and find the information.

The fact that it happened to be his daughter was just an uncomfortable coincidence.

Someday Tim would be doing this, Babs though as she slipped past firewalls. He had the tech savvy, the detail-oriented mindset, and the patience. But not today – she wasn’t quite yet ready to retire.

Notes and audio files loaded up onto her screen, and she began listening to the statements taken from the employees at the Riverside Veterinary Emergency Hospital. It turned out to be extremely interesting, indeed.

One hyena, shot twice. Another hyena clearly stressed but uninjured. Their owner bruised and bloodied, but paying no attention to her own injuries until her pet had been cared for. And it had all happened around the same time Joker had been dumped at the ER.

She picked up her phone and dialed Bruce. “Kala was right,” she said.

“It was Harley,” he replied, probably reading the same notes from the Bat-computer.

“According to this technician’s statement, she had bruising on her throat and injuries to both hands,” Babs said. “I wonder if she attacked Joker, and the hyena got in the middle of it somehow.”

“She wouldn’t just decide to attack him out of nowhere,” Bruce mused. “There’s always a reason. So … Joker attacked her first. That’s a normal pattern for him. Then the hyena tried to defend her. He shot it for interfering, or just to get it off him, and she retaliated against him. That’s the difference – the hyena being shot is why she fought back, this time.”

Babs bit her lip against a muttered curse. Of course. It had to be a unique circumstance – and Joker had never harmed the hyenas before. He didn’t dote on them like Harley did, but he found them useful. “That fits. She was near hysterical when she showed up at the clinic. That vet handled it exactly right – the cops gave him hell for not calling it in, but I think he was right. Any ordinary cop, or even a SWAT team, would’ve been met with overwhelming force.”

“We could have handled her,” Bruce replied. As he must, of course. “I’d rather have her in custody – and Ivy, too.”

“At least the prognosis for the hyena is good, but he’ll need time to recuperate. That’ll keep Harley off the street.” Babs looked over the veterinary records again; they were similar enough to human medical records that she understood it had been a very close thing. “I’m going to get samples of the bills she paid with, but it’s likely they’re untraceable.”

“Money laundering,” Bruce said, in tones usually reserved for despicable perversions. “The officers involved handled it well. Every bill is accounted for.”

“The bad old days are just about gone,” Babs replied, thinking of the time when most of the GCPD had been on someone’s payroll. Her father had changed that, but when Bruce had begun as Batman, the briefcase full of cash would’ve been a lot lighter when it arrived at the station. Or simply disappeared in transit.

That was mostly a thing of the past, now. There would always be problems, but Commissioner Gordon wouldn’t let the police force return to the corruption he’d inherited.

The funds would sit in evidence for a while, but if they weren’t traceable or counterfeit, eventually they’d have to be handled in accordance with policy. In the meantime, Bruce said, “The Wayne Foundation is covering the costs the clinic incurred, treating the hyena, and offering free counseling to any of the technicians who might’ve been traumatized by the experience.”

“Sounds like the receptionist will need it,” Babs said quietly. Her transcript seemed the most rattled. The Wayne Foundation provided support for a lot of people caught up in the aftermath of various high-profile crimes. A helping hand, and a sympathetic ear, might prevent a few people from deciding to slip on a mask and seek retribution.

“I’ll tell the others,” Bruce said, and clicked off the line without waiting for further commentary.

Babs, meanwhile, pushed her glasses aside and rubbed her temples. She’d been trying, ever since the news last night, not to feel some kind of bitter triumph at the thought of Joker lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to all the same incessantly beeping machines, feeling the same maddening helplessness she had. A part of her, a small and perpetually angry part, wanted to drive over to the hospital, wheel up as close to his room as she could get, and shout ‘How do you like it, you miserable sack of shit?!’ until someone dragged her away.

There were two reasons why she wouldn’t do that. Well, three, really.

One, she’d get herself arrested, and that would embarrass her dad. Babs loved him too much to do something that thoughtless.

Two, her colleagues expected better of her. Dinah expected better of her, and worse, Dinah would forgive her for slipping up and letting the vicious bitch at the bottom of her brain loose. In these circumstances, they’d all forgive her – and that kind of compassion was too close to the pity she loathed.

Three, she was afraid that if she started out yelling, she’d end up laughing.

Like him.

Babs contented herself with murmuring, “Good for you, Harley. Now save us the trouble and turn yourself in.” Then she turned her attention ruthlessly to the work that needed to be done, the serial numbers on all those bills that needed to be matched against the counterfeiting database.

 

 

The normal course of events, on their shared birthday, was for Kala to text Jase when she got up. She usually rose earlier, and their time zones were rarely in sync, so she sent that text where it’d be the first thing her twin saw. Then he would call her later once the farm animals were fed and he had a spare moment. It wasn’t always possible for her to fly out and see him, but she tried. And hearing his voice was enough to keep her going.

She’d texted Jase when she left Jay’s apartment, and then got swept up in everything with the band. Dustin called to tease that she was getting old, and his gift arrived later that day: a box from the small company that made her favorite perfume, containing a bottle of eau de parfum and bodywash in the same candied-violet scent. Mom called, with Dad, Daddy Richard, Lana, and Kristin in the background, and all of them sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her, bringing Kala nearly to tears. Their gifts were still in Metropolis, waiting for her next trip home and the big family dinner that always marked her birthday.

Her boys showered her with gift cards, too cautious to buy for a girl who wasn’t related to them. They sang the birthday song, too, but being a trio of quirky band geeks, they did their best to sing it in their closest approximation of death metal, which probably terrified whoever was in the next room. Even Derek presented her with a nice card signed by himself, Jenna, and just about everyone at the label who worked with her. Kala was so surprised by the gesture that she hugged him, which clearly shocked the poor man.

The Gotham contingent spoiled her rotten, too. Babs, Dinah, and Helena had sent her a card and a gift basket that contained, among other delights, a bottle of ice wine, which Kala had only mentioned once in Babs’ hearing that she enjoyed the stuff. Then again, Babs was the information broker; she wouldn’t forget a fact, no matter how trivial it seemed. Uncle Bruce had made dinner reservations for her, Tim had sent an e-giftcard with a sweet note, Alfred had shipped out a box of delicious scones, and Jay had managed to get an edible arrangement of chocolate-dipped fruit sent out to her the same day. The attached card, which read, ‘This is almost as sweet as you,’ made her laugh out loud – and hide it from everyone else.

Meanwhile Dick had gone to the Gotham Zoo, adopted a young female Egyptian fruit bat, and named her Josephine. The email confirmation Kala received noted that an adoption package was being mailed to her, at the address of her next hotel stop. Dick had even included a personal note that this species was the only fruit bat to use echolocation, therefore an appropriate gift for a singer. Kala couldn’t help letting out a squeak of delight at the pictures of fluffy big-eyed bats attached to the email. It was the perfect thing to remind her of Gotham, and reading further down, her adoption package included a photo of ‘her’ bat, a Gotham Zoo t-shirt, and a bat plushie. So far, Dick had definitely won the ‘best birthday gift’ contest.

It was late in the afternoon before Kala got a few minutes alone, and she flopped on the hotel bed with a sigh. She still had to figure out what to wear to dinner tomorrow, and Morgan, Robb, and Ned were all searching their suitcases for the same reason. Kala had decided to bring all three of them with her, in hopes that their company would make her feel a little less alone. It’d be good to do something together as a band, too.

They were all feeling the loss of Sebast. Morgan sang his parts in their duets, but his voice didn’t have Sebast’s power, or the rich underplay of tone and nuance that Kala and Sebast had developed over the years. The choreography had to change, too, because none of the boys were comfortable dancing with her the way Sebast had. Robb, especially, claimed to have no rhythm despite being a professional bass player.

Other bands lost musicians and managed to soldier on, but not a lead singer. Kala had been giving a hundred percent on stage the whole tour, but now she was compensating for Sebast’s absence, and frankly it was burning her out. She was exhausted more often than not, but she managed to be extra-welcoming and cheerful backstage, to greet every city with every ounce of charisma she possessed, trying to give the fans what they’d come for and still knowing it wasn’t quite enough.

For the first time in her life, Kala found herself dreading her job. Not once in her career had she ever wanted to cancel a show, and she’d never really felt stage fright, either. Kala had fed on the energy of the crowds, and no matter what craziness happened – from power blackouts to stage-diving fans to that one time an amp almost exploded – she could roll with it.

Not now. It was costing her to get on that stage every time, instead of renewing her love for music, and her confidence was shot without Sebast at her side. She knew, too well, that the fan forums were full of controversy, and Twitter was alive with speculation. So far none of it had come up on stage, but Kala found herself waking up from nightmares of a crowd chanting Sebast’s name, their demand turning ugly, and then an all-out riot between those who were primarily his fans, and her own.

Those nightmares bled into her other ones, where Dru-Zod castigated her for driving Sebast away and being dishonest with Jay. Never mind that Jay had forgiven her; she should’ve told him from the beginning that she and Sebast lived together. She was getting very tired of waking up in a cold sweat, her heart clenched in a fist of dread. Right now, the thing she missed most was Jay. Her nightmares usually stayed away when she slept in his arms, and running around Gotham with him kept her from worrying about the band stuff. It was hard to see online flame-wars as important when there were criminals and villains to fight.

Not that she had much chance to obsess about any of the problems today . The boys were determined to cheer her up, her phone was going off constantly with texts and social media notifications of birthday wishes from everyone she knew, and she had to fit rehearsal in somehow, too. It was exhausting, but for once, the good kind of exhausting. With all those happy messages flooding her phone, she was even looking forward to singing tonight.

Just as she began to contemplate a nap, her phone rang. Kala laughed at the irony, and picked it up, but when she saw the name displayed she almost shouted with surprised joy. “Marlene! Oh my God, I have missed you so much. How are you? Who do they have you managing now?”

“Hey, Kala, happy birthday,” her ex-girlfriend chuckled. “I’ve missed you, too. Doing good out here – they gave me a boy band, Glades Park Five, out of Star City.”

“Eww, pop music,” Kala remarked. “Are they at least behaving?”

“Pop sells, sweetheart. They are now. I’ve been accused of having ‘the mom look’ and they’re afraid of it.” Marlene’s smoky laugh was a balm to her soul. “Teenage drama, though. And they’re more vain than you ever were at your worst, Kala. If someone’s hair isn’t just right, it’s a national freaking emergency.”

“I’m sorry,” Kala replied. “I wish you were on this tour with us.”

Marlene sighed. “I do, too, but the label keeps me around for new acts. You’re basically a veteran now. You guys were never really any trouble, anyway.”

“Tell that to Derek,” Kala muttered darkly.

A pause, and then Marlene sighed. “So that’s who they gave him. And of course, it sounds like things have been rough for you this time out.”

“Mostly because of him,” Kala snapped. “I swear to God, Marlene, it’s gonna be a minor miracle if we get to Christmas without me kicking his ass.”

She could see Marlene in her mind’s eye, sitting up and taking a sharper interest. “Hold on now, Kala. Derek’s a good manager. He’s had a rough spot of his own, but I wouldn’t have thought there’d be issues there. Is it because of what happened with Sebast?”

Kala winced, but plunged on. “No, the problems with Derek have been going on since before I got back from Gotham over the summer. He’s a micro -manager, Marlene! The first day I met him, he tried to tell me the band isn’t allowed to carry our own instruments. He’s been treating us all like children, the boys were sick of him before we ever hit the road. Hell, he’s accused me of being on drugs, and tried to lock up my phone and ID so I can’t leave the hotel!”

Marlene swore under her breath. “Dammit, I left notes that you lot were easy to manage and didn’t need that much supervision.”

Laughing bitterly, Kala said, “Yeah, about that. This sonofabitch told me to my face that you were wrong about us, and he figured it was ‘cause you were, and I quote, too busy eyeing my cleavage to do your job.” Those hadn’t been Derek’s exact words, but it was close enough to his meaning.

The silence on Marlene’s end was thick with anger. “This is what I get for trusting someone,” she finally growled. “Kala, I’m not even out to the label. You and I stayed way under the radar just to keep them from hanging that over my head.”

“Yeah, I didn’t want them to fire you,” Kala replied.

Marlene sighed. “They wouldn’t have fired me. Record labels don’t fire you unless you start costing them money. Mariah Carey married her manager, and there are plenty of people in this industry who fraternize with the talent. But I have a reputation for being absolutely above-the-board and clean-cut. That’s why I get the newbies. That’s why they trust me and stay out of my hair.”

Kala couldn’t help being a little hurt by that. She’d never liked keeping relationships secret, and having to hide everything between herself and Marlene hadn’t been easy. “Then why would you even…?”

“Because you’re you,” Marlene said. “And no, I don’t say that to all the girls. I broke my own rules for you, Kala, and you were worth it. Even if we knew it couldn’t last. Everyone in this industry is crazy, and everyone outside it can’t understand at all what we do. You were the only one who got it, and who was funny and charming and sweet, too. I’ve had my share of toxic affairs; you know the recording industry is full of narcissists.”

“I remember,” Kala said. “I had a narcissist of my own; we talked about Alan. But still – if you’ve always kept it quiet, why did you tell Derek, of all people?”

“He does not know we were together. I just … look, I worked with Derek before, years back. I basically trained him. I ended up coming out to him because he kinda… I had to tell him why I turned him down without it being about him.”

Ewww!” Kala yelped. “He hit on you? Come on, Marlene, what’s wrong with him, when was this?!”

“Not that long ago, right before they gave him his first assignment after he came back. Which turned out to be you, and man is that a bad coincidence.”

“Tell me about it,” Kala scoffed. “I swear, this year is getting weirder and weirder.”

“He wasn’t really serious, anyway. He was just looking for a soft place to land, and he trusted me,” Marlene said dismissively. “Derek’s a good guy, Kala, but when I say he’s coming off a rough patch … you have no idea. And it’s not my story to tell. Just cut him some slack, okay? And the next time I see him, I’ll deal with him and this eyeballing your cleavage business. He’s hurt, he’s angry, he’s trying to keep his shit together just like everyone else.”

She groaned at that. “Yeah, he’s too busy being so far up in our shit I swear he’s trying to be a proctologist. He’s gotta cut us some slack, too, and so far he hasn’t. My boys don’t work too well with someone nipping their heels every time they turn around. I don’t, either, and I’ve got way too much else to deal with to coddle my fucking manager.”

Marlene replied gently, “Zeeskeit, I thought I was your only fucking manager.”

That pet name did get Kala laughing, hard enough that she had to wipe her eyes when she got it back under control. “God, I needed that. Marlene, this is why I miss you. Derek would just give us a lecture, you always made us laugh.”

“I’m the third child out of four siblings, and we’re all textbook neurotic New York Jews,” Marlene replied lightly. “I had to learn to manage people and deflect things with humor, or my own family would’ve driven me crazy.”

Kala sighed. “I wish you were here. Somehow I just don’t think all of this would’ve gotten so bad if we had you around.”

A pause, and then Marlene said, “’All of this being’ Sebast, I take it. I’ve only heard rumors, Kala. What happened?”

She gave a bitter laugh. “Well, you were the one who told him to make a move, weren’t you?”

“Oh for the love of… That’s it, I’m not talking to men anymore, they always repeat things out of context,” Marlene grumbled. “Don’t tell me Sebast waited until now?”

“No, Marlene, he waited until I was getting involved with someone else,” Kala replied sadly. “He told me what you’d said when we had a big fight over it. That was the night I managed to get myself filmed kissing my boyfriend in Denver, and Sebast threw a jealous hissy fit, and I threw his suitcase off the balcony.”

“See, I hadn’t quite believed that one,” Marlene said. “Oy vey, you kids. You didn’t tell him about the boyfriend, did you?”

“No,” Kala admitted in a small voice. “I hadn’t gotten around to it. I didn’t know how he’d react, and things were already tense with me having been gone the summer, and Derek being … Derek. I just … it was pretty new, and the guy and I weren’t exactly putting a name to it, either, so I just kept it quiet.”

“I keep telling you, if you’re gonna carry around so much guilt, you have to convert. Us and Catholics, we have the market cornered,” Marlene teased her gently. “You’ve always had a thing for Sebast, so the one time you got into something that might jeopardize that, you hid it from him. Am I right?”

“Yeah,” Kala admitted. “But Marlene, I didn’t know Sebast and I had a real chance! You know him, he’s got to be the gayest gay who ever gayed. I didn’t want to be the kind of girl who tries to ‘cure’ her gay best friend.”

“That one’s on him, then,” Marlene said. “I told him to get his head right, and say something to you. It was obvious to me the man’s in love with you. And you love him, too.”

“I do,” Kala admitted softly. “That was never in question, just the how. I thought I could love him as my best friend and everything would stay the same. I didn’t think this would all go to hell.”

“And as long as no one you dated was any threat to his relationship with you, he wasn’t gonna try to put a name to it or make it more than it had been,” Marlene concluded for her. “You were just as miserable when he was with Javier, remember.”

“Well, Javier didn’t treat him right, anyway,” Kala groused. “I’m still pissed at him. He made all those accusations when he was the one cheating, and I hadn’t even slept with Sebast yet.”

“Oh, so you two finally did the deed?” Marlene asked.

Kala winced; that had been before she and Marlene got back together on the band’s second tour. “Yeah, but neither of us said anything afterward. To anyone, at all, not even each other. The first time it got brought up was the big argument in Denver. But then, all the stuff we were hiding got brought up then.”

“It was that bad?” Marlene said dubiously.

“No, that was the problem!” Kala said, half-laughing. “It was pretty damn good for both of us, even if we were half-drunk and being stupid. At least, he implied it was, when we finally talked about it in the middle of the fight.”

“You children,” Marlene sighed, and Kala could just see her shaking her head in disbelief. “Have you spoken to Sebast at all since the big showdown?”

“Yeah, last night actually,” she admitted. “Not for long, and it doesn’t … I don’t know if he’s coming back to the band, or if we’re still friends, or what. But he called because he was going to ship me my birthday gift. I … I cried, after I got off the phone. Which was real awkward, since I was with the boyfriend at the time.”

“What about that boyfriend?” Marlene asked. “Does he know about you and Sebast?”

“He does now,” Kala said sheepishly. “He knew all along about Sebast, but I never quite got around to mentioning the fact that we owned a house together. Until last night, when I figured I’d better lay all my cards on the table.”

“You tell him about the two of you sleeping together? Literally, and euphemistically?”

Kala winced again. “Dammit, we shared a bed for eight years and never had sex! We slept in that bed at the house together, before and after we slipped up and got drunk, and it was completely innocent the whole time!”

“I know, zeeskeit, I know,” Marlene soothed. “I’m just saying, that’s a thing a lotta guys might have a problem with. Most people don’t sleep together unless there’s sex involved somewhere.”

“Yes, I told him all of it, and yes, he had a problem with it, but he’s … he knows how close we were. He’s not being a Neanderthal about it, fortunately.” Kala sighed noisily. “If he was upset, he’d tell me. He’s not the kind to keep it to himself.”

“Good, there’s nothing worse than somebody having a problem with you and not telling you about it,” Marlene replied. “So how are things with the new guy? What’s his name, where’s he from, what’s he do? C’mon, Kala, dish.”

She groaned; there was so much she couldn’t tell Marlene, things that wouldn’t make sense even if she did tell them. “Can I get a pass on that? Things are good, he’s from Gotham, I met him over the summer, but it’s … complicated.”

Marlene paused, and then asked worriedly, “You didn’t go and sleep with Batman, did you?”

Kala yelped in horror. “Marlene! God, no , isn’t he like my father’s age? Eww!”

The laughter she got in response proved it was just a joke – and that Marlene had no clue about any real identities in Gotham. “Okay, then. Is it that Dick Grayson you were all over the society pages with? He’s cute, at least.”

“I solemnly swear I never slept with Dick Grayson,” Kala said, and then chuckled. “He’s even prettier in person. Total sweetheart. The thing is, I didn’t go there to hook up, and he’s got way too many women throwing themselves at him. I figure it’s worth the novelty of being the one who doesn’t fall prey to his dimples.”

“Okay then. It’s good to hear you laugh, Kala. I’m not used to hearing you this tense and upset.” She could picture Marlene’s sad smile at those words.

“Me neither. Right now I’m just trying to hang on until the holiday break.” Kala closed her eyes, wishing Marlene was here. When they’d been together, they could talk about anything, usually with Kala laying half across her lap and Marlene playing with her hair. What she wouldn’t give for that soothing feeling right about now.

“You’ll make it. You’re stronger than you know,” Marlene assured her. “Listen, sweetheart, I’m sending you a present. It should be there at the hotel when you hit Sacramento. I’m sorry it’s gonna be late, I didn’t get a chance to ship it until this morning. One of my boys had a crisis because someone online said his shirt was stupid.”

Kala rolled her eyes. “Good grief. It’s okay, Marlene. Just hearing from you was present enough.”

“That’s sweet of you, but I’m gonna send you a bill for this one. What’s your shrink charge per hour? I’ll cut you twenty percent off that.” Her teasing tone was gentle; Marlene knew all about Dr. Marrin, and part of why Kala had been in counseling.

Kala just laughed, “Shut up, you love me.” And tried not to notice how easily she said it to her ex. It was natural for her to tell people when she loved them; only with Jay did she hold back those words, knowing how leery he was of them.

“It’s hard not to,” Marlene told her. “All right, I have to go. If I don’t keep an eye on them, the Glades Park Five will get into trouble.”

Kala sighed. “What, they’ll stick a fork in a light socket or something? How old are these guys?”

“You joke, but three days ago they figured out if they rub huge globs of hand sanitizer on their arms and put a lighter to it, it’ll burn,” Marlene said dryly. “The youngest is thirteen, the oldest is about to turn sixteen. I’m in hell.”

“Come home,” Kala said playfully. “You know you want to.”

“Oh, I do, but Derek would have all of these noodges committed,” Marlene replied. “Be good, Kala. And call me if you need me, okay?”

“Careful, I’ll call you every day,” Kala replied, and couldn’t even pretend to be joking.

“I don’t need your new boyfriend jealous, too,” Marlene laughed, and with a few more jests, they signed off.

Kala lay sprawled, her phone still in her hand, and finally felt a little lighter.

That lasted almost fifteen minutes before she realized that it was late enough in Smallville that Jason would’ve already had dinner, and be winding down for the day. And he still hadn’t called her.

She stared at her phone, thinking. This wasn’t an accident. She and Jase had had their explosive argument over the video that had outed her and Jay, but Kala had the feeling that him not calling on their birthday had more to do with Sebast finding out their identities. The worst part was, she couldn’t really blame him. Jase had always been slow to anger, but once he was angry, he didn’t cool down easily. He could hold a grudge longer than she could.

And she’d surprised him in Kansas, showed up out of the blue, knocked him on his ass, and roared at him for threatening Jay. He’d gone busting into the Batcave, for fuck’s sake, she’d been justified in her anger, but he wouldn’t see it like that. All he saw was his sister, willing to fight him as they’d only really fought once before, in Nevada. And he blamed that on Jay.

He never could believe that the darkness in her soul was hers. Jason the golden boy, Jason the good twin, Jason who was as honest and sunny as a summer day under the wide Kansas sky. Sometimes Kala felt like he was her mirror image, and sometimes she felt like he was so far from her that he might as well have been another species.

Now on top of all that, she’d screwed up and let Sebast find out their identities. She couldn’t blame him for being mad enough not to call on their birthday. It still hurt, and Kala missed her sweet silly iguana-loving brother poignantly.

That was enough to undo most of the good work Marlene had put in toward restoring her peace of mind, and Kala curled up in a little ball. She could only let herself cry for a little while. The show must go on – and like her mother, Kala would force all the bad stuff to one side and put a brave face on for the rest of the world before she’d admit that he’d hurt her.

 

 

The next morning, Kala called Jay, asking if he was free to go for a brief trip out of town. It had been a surprise, seeing as how she was going to be pretty pressed for time the next few days, by her own admission. That said, with the news about Joker still simmering in his hind-brain, Jay was more than ready for a distraction. Part of him wanted to drive over to the hospital and administer a coup-de-grace. Who would stop him? Bruce, maybe, but Bruce couldn’t stand outside Joker’s room all the time. And Jay really didn’t give a flying fuck about what the rest of the family would think. If he did it, he’d do it for himself.

But weirdly … he felt like he didn’t need to. Maybe this was how Babs felt about Joker. She didn’t take any chances, she was locked and loaded in case he ever came to finish the job, but Babs seemed to have moved on with her life. Jay figured she might’ve thought about hacking the hospital systems and shutting off his life support, but if she hadn’t done that, maybe it said more about who she was than it did about Joker.

If he did roll over there and cap the Clown, it wouldn’t be revenge. It’d just be like cleaning up a stain on the floor, saving someone else the trouble of having to handle it. Jay’s life was actually pretty damn good lately, despite all that miserable laughing asshat had done to him. Joker didn’t know anything about Kala, and having her in his corner soothed all kinds of things Jay thought were part of his personality, and now he was wondering if maybe they were just part of his coping mechanisms.

Despite that, which he just knew Dick would call ‘growth’, part of Jay wanted to do it. Just so he could say it was done. But he didn’t like the thought of killing someone, anyone, without being one hundred percent clear on why he was pulling the trigger. One thing he’d learned, cleaning up his act – it was damn easy to get used to killing. The first time was horrible, it’d kept him up for days, but by the time he’d come back to Gotham to reveal himself to Bruce it was no more upsetting than flicking cigarette ash off his jacket. And that … that wasn’t who Jay wanted to be.

So, a distraction was a good idea. A change of scenery was even better. And seeing Kala for both was the best of all. She sounded like she needed it, too, to be trying to get away again within twenty-four hours, and when she arrived, the tremulous look on her face backed up that conclusion. Something was eating at her, then, and wouldn’t let go. “I got your birthday present,” he said when she touched down on the fire escape, and was immediately rewarded by her eyes brightening up. “It’s not here ‘til the weekend, though, so don’t go searching my place for it.”

She caught his meaning immediately and played into it with a grateful look as she climbed in the window with more grace than anyone else could manage. “Aww, Jay, come on. Don’t do that to me,” Kala said, and sure enough she was looking around, maybe even using x-ray vision. Probably not, but she wanted him to think so.

Jay pushed her shoulder playfully as she stood up. “Quit. It’s custom ordered. Just clear up your schedule for Monday night, okay?”

Unexpectedly, Kala caught his hand and ducked, turning with the momentum until her back was to him. Leaning against him, she beamed that sunshine smile up at him impishly. So proud of herself. “I don’t have a show, so I’m free. I bet you already checked the tour dates.”

“Of course I did,” he said, wrapping his arms around her and squeezing tight.

“Do I get a hint?” she asked, blinking at him charmingly.

Jay sighed, looking up, and finally said, “Okay, fine. Since you asked so nicely. Your gift weighs less than five hundred pounds.” Which was totally irrelevant to the actual gift, but served her right for being nosy.

“Snarky fuck,” Kala grumbled insolently. Still smiling.

“You gonna hold on telling me where we’re going?” he asked, pulling away from her reluctantly to head for the closet.

“Dress warm.” The laugh she gave sounded a little nervous, just upping his curiosity. Looked like she might not have been planning to keep it a secret, but since he gave her the idea and all…

Jay was fine with that. He didn’t like Kala looking all miserable, and letting her tease him sure brightened her up quick. He dressed for a cold Gotham night, but Kala shook her head. “Got a heavier coat?” Just raising a brow at her, even more intrigued, he found a parka in the back of the closet, and Kala pronounced that good enough. “We’ll be fine once we’re inside, but the trip’s pretty chilly.”

“What, are we going to Antarctica to photograph penguins? Make Cobblepot jealous?” he asked.

This time when Kala laughed, it was free and lovely, the laugh that reached right down into his heart and shut up all his regrets and mistakes for a while. Those hazel eyes flashed with amusement. “No, Jay, we’re going to the North Pole to petition Santa to take you off the naughty list.”

“Never happen,” Jay laughed back as he came back closer to her, and grabbed her butt to make her yip in surprise. “I’m dragging you onto that list, K. Guilt by association.”

Oh, that bratty, indignant look on her face, not to mention the way she narrowed her eyes at him. Just what he wanted to see. “Last I checked, I’m naughty enough on my own,” she replied with a smirk, waggling her eyebrows suggestively. And then very deliberately giving his ass an affectionate squeeze, too.

God, they were a walking fucking ad for insulin. Any minute now there’d be a Wilford Brimley voice-over. “Lead on, K,” Jay told her.

She did, taking them up from the fire escape, and they were heading north, he saw. Maybe not to the pole, but somewhere way out past the last hints of civilization. The sky changed as they flew, looking like sunrise, and Jay figured they were up above the Arctic circle, for it to rise so late. And then he realized where she was taking him, seeing their destination rising from the desolate icy plains ahead. “We’re going to the Fortress?” What the hell was she doing, bringing him here?

“I’ve trusted you with everything else,” Kala said softly. “And you stuck by me despite everything, the other night.”

Hell, all he’d done so far was try to be a good partner, to be reasonable about everything that came their way. But he figured K was still kicking herself for all the stuff she hadn’t told him about the house and Sebast, so this was her way of making sure he had the whole picture. Maybe she was regretting not telling Sebast about all this, too, in which case Jay was happy to pick up the slack.

Jay had seen pictures of it before somewhere. A great cluster of crystals thrusting up from Arctic ice, like some kind of impossible sci-fi story come to life. Which, it pretty much was.

The reality was a bit more … well, more to start with. Pictures didn’t convey the scale. Those big crystal columns? Were as thick as oak trees. And the interlocking crystals that formed the roof were a whole lot higher than he would’ve guessed. He and Kala were currently descending toward an opening in the roof, and Jay couldn’t help flinching a little at the way those huge crystals seemed to lean toward him.

Kala gave a quiet chuckle, stopping to hover just beneath the overhang. There was a panel there for her to press her palm against, and a beam of light that scanned her retina. Jay tried not to look grumpy as he hung from her arm like so much laundry, but he hated feeling useless. If the entrance had been from ground level, he could at least hike to it. But a ground level entrance had been what allowed Lex Luthor to sneak in once before, so now only fliers could even approach the security panel.

“Relax, Jay,” Kala told him, as more crystals beneath them irised open.

“I am relaxed,” he lied. “Please, if I let you fly me to Hong Kong, the Arctic Circle is nothing.” That earned him a merry laugh as they dropped down into an immense chamber, easily as big as the Batcave. Unlike his family’s base of operations, however, the room was softly lit, a faint silver-white glow that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.

At least, until they touched down, when it became a golden-white glow all around them. Uncomfortably bright for Jay, especially with no clear source and no shadows. All his life he had watched the shadows for the faintest flicker of movement, of darkness concealed within darkness, and he had trusted those same shadows to serve him as cloak and misdirection whenever he needed. The lack of darkness here made him uneasy, as did the way the light seemed to follow them while they walked.

“Where’s it coming from?” he finally asked, keeping close to Kala’s side. Everything he could see was just subtly different from any architecture or décor from Earth; she was the only familiar thing here.

Except when she spoke, her voice was familiar in all the wrong ways, the tone and cadence reminiscent of a darker self. The Empress never failed to raise Jay’s hackles—and not just his hackles, actually. He had to fight down the wave of arousal and concern when Kala answered blithely in that almost Shakespearean English, “You refer to the light? It comes from the crystals themselves. Solar energy is stored through the polar summer, and is released as necessary. The entire structure is sensitive to our presence, and lights only the rooms where we tread, unless instructed otherwise.”

“Damn creepy, K,” he said, deliberately slipping into the roughest diction and accent available to him, just for the contrast.

“It is an alien stronghold. Were you expecting otherwise?” She turned to him with a smile, and Jay realized that even her stance and posture were different here. This was the Empress, in a way, but not the side that was ferociously protective and prone to violence. This was Kala being a Kryptonian, and seeing her like this brought it home more sharply that she was half alien. Not that Jay minded.

Still, he followed where she led him, because trusting Kala was too deeply ingrained at that point for him to do anything else. She was right about that, this was more intimate in some ways than letting him into her body, and he could only respond by trusting her in return. And because, uncertain or not, Jay had always had a certain alley-cat curiosity to his nature that made him want to see more.

They passed into a new room, one where the floor dropped away in awkwardly steep terraces around a single promontory. Jay hung back as Kala walked out along its length, and then held out her hand, palm down. To his surprise, a new cluster of crystals grew out of the ground at her feet, shaping themselves into a sort of plinth—no, a console, he saw, made up of hollow crystal tubes. Kala plucked one from its place and set it into another tube in the center, and the entire console pulsed golden-white.

He knew something was about to happen, there was something here she wanted to show him above all else, but Jay still wasn’t prepared for the immense disembodied head that appeared in midair and addressed Kala in what had to be Kryptonese. He flinched backward, hand dropping to the butt of his gun, as the apparition gazed down at him.

“Greetings, Grandfather,” Kala said, in that accented English. “Allow me to introduce you to my partner, Jason Todd.”

 

Chapter Text

Kala made the introduction, and turned to smile indulgently at Jay’s expression. He was trying to process what she’d said—so this was Jor-El, Superman’s father? The blue eyes looked familiar, at least. Now Jay remembered being told that this was a holographic display for an artificial intelligence program.

A freaking giant hologram. Babs had her own display, he’d seen other holograms, but nothing this detailed or advanced. Kala spoke to it like it was a sentient person, not a program. And the way she spoke was trying to wake up all his internal alarms – she sounded like the Empress. She was demonstrably not freaked out though, so it was probably more accurate to say that Empress sounded like her, just now. This was the most Kryptonian side of her, Kala Kal-El. He’d never heard her talk like this unless she was spun up, and wondered if the other two sounded the same up here.

“Partner?” the hologram asked in a questioning tone.

Kala replied with a word of Kryptonese, and then added, “Colleague would perhaps be the more correct term in English, but that denotes a relationship more distant and formal. Jason Todd and I have accumulated more trust in one another than that implies. He was my primary tutor in the martial arts, a significant form for defense, and I fight at his side in the battle against evil.”

Jay wanted to snort at that, just how seriously she could say it, and Kala subtly smacked his arm, hard, out of sight. It sounded melodramatic as all hell, and Jay himself had been too close to evil to be so black and white about what they did. And the way she described him was even more amusing. Yeah, he’d been her teacher, and he was her lover, but the most important thing was that they were partners in the field who operated so deep in each other’s heads that they barely needed signals. He knew where Kala was going to be, and she knew what he would do, with hardly a word being exchanged. That kind of working relationship was way beyond colleagues and even the ordinary definition of partners. It was just them.

And then the hologram turned its attention to him. Those eyes were the size of basketballs, focused on him with intense precision, and despite the politely curious expression Jay fought the urge to take a step back. Most people didn’t think of Kryptonians as cold or formal, but Kala had told him about the cultural differences. All the warmth and amiability that everyone associated with Superman was just part of Clark, not necessarily his lineage. This, the clinical intelligence in Jor-El’s eyes, was more ‘natural’ to Kryptonians than the friendly smile the rest of the world knew.

“Greetings and welcome, Jason Todd,” the voice said, a slight oddness to it—maybe an artifact of being produced by crystals. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise,” Jay said, dredging up the best behavior he’d never bothered to be on during many, many Wayne family functions.

Kala’s smile was strangely enigmatic; Jay would’ve said he knew every micro-expression that flitted across her face, but this was different. “Grandfather, I believe the Giant Floating Head is somewhat discomfiting for Jason. Could you perhaps project something a bit more to scale?”

With that, the image vanished, replaced by the same man in glowing white robes, now their size and standing on the same crystal ledge. Jay managed not to jump in surprise at the sudden appearance; it was just a hologram, like the disembodied head. Still damn disconcerting; every hologram he’d seen before had a little shimmer or transparency to it, some indication that the image wasn’t real. But this? This looked real enough to shake hands with, and only belatedly did he remember that Kryptonians didn’t do that.

His gaze shifted past Jor-El to Kala, who had arched a brow impishly at him. Jay could almost hear her voice saying, ‘Told you—alien’. “Yeah, I get it, K,” he said to her.

The hologram blinked, and Kala supplied, “Jor-El is not familiar with the percentage of slang used in ordinary speech in Gotham City. Grandfather, Jason Todd is the son of Father’s colleague, the Batman. And it is customary amongst his team to refer to one another by initials, to preserve anonymity.”

“Very reasonable,” Jor-El remarked. “Tell me, Granddaughter, what is your reason for visiting the Fortress this day?”

“I wished to introduce you to Jason Todd,” Kala said, eyes never leaving the AI and sounding all too solemn. “As he has become an important figure in my life through our association, I believe it necessary in the context of our work together that he be granted a greater understanding of the whole of who I am.”

At that, Jay could only blink. “Wow. K … I mean I understood, just not quite this much.” He gestured to the Fortress at large, and he did mean large. It was all incredibly foreign, and if he hadn’t been Red Hood he would’ve described it as intimidating. Yet it was part of her, his friend, partner, trainee, and lover, the girl he would’ve sworn he knew better than himself.

She smiled at that and turned her head to look at him, the curve of her lips curled familiarly, giving a little nod. He could see her initial response in her eyes. I know, right? “Most have that reaction on their first visit. Your father felt the same, I believe, but he is a man of few words.” Kala looked off into the breadth of the main cave, her expression growing a little quieter, a little distant. “The whole of it is rather immense, is it not? It has been many years since I have seen it with fresh eyes. I was all of six years upon my first visit. Father tells me that I was unreasonably ecstatic over the event.”

I was screaming my head off and running everywhere, getting into everything, Jay read. He snorted in amusement, picturing it. His Kala wouldn’t have been intimidated, not for long. She was probably climbing the crystal columns inside of a day, if Superman didn’t stop her.

“It’s freaking huge,” Jay said aloud. “And I don’t want to be rude, but I would love a guided tour. In a way, it’s like the Cave, right? You’ve got a massive computer up here, and a trophy room…”

That brought her back, eyes gleaming as she attempted not to smirk, though that dark brow of hers arched up. Really. Figures you’d know about that. “It seems as if the man of few words does actually speak. Of all the wonders the Fortress holds, it does not escape me that that was what he remembered. Of course we may. Truly, that had been my intention all along.”

Kala turned to the AI then, inclining her head slightly. “Grandfather, I have gained Father’s permission for this visit, so as to not alarm others should something go amiss in our work. Allowing him access to our databases will aid him in defending against my weaknesses, as well as giving him the ability to soothe others in the event of those weaknesses. I would believe you trust that I shall not give away the keys to the kingdom or grant this wisdom lightly? I give my word that I will complete the data within his file as thoroughly as I can on returning, if it pleases you. There will be information that may prove potentially vital at some later date. Does that suit you?”

“That is acceptable,” Jor-El replied, inclining his head the same way. “The Fortress is your legacy, Kala Kal-El, and you have long since demonstrated the responsibility to disclose its nature to whomever you choose.”

What Jay saw then surprised him a little, Kala briefly looking down, closing her eyes, and biting her lip. When she finally looked up and responded, her face looked terribly young. A slight shine welled in her eyes, even in this light. “You do me great honor, Grandfather. I thank you for your words and your confidence in my actions. I will return before I depart. Sleep well until next we meet.”

“You have earned every honor, Granddaughter. Safe travels to you and yours.” With that, the hologram disappeared, and Jay relaxed minutely.

“So now I met your granddad,” he said with a lopsided grin. “And I get to tour the family estate? Sweet.”

Kala crossed her arms and then really did smirk at him. “It was necessary to begin the process of acquainting this world with your own. Tell me, are you no longer so intimidated, Jason Todd? For this is only the first sight of the world of Krypton you have beheld.”

He took a rolling step toward her, hands tucked into his pockets and a broad grin on his face. “Not intimidated at all, if it’s you. And contrary to popular belief, I do find this kind of history fascinating. Now lose the Royal Kryptonian Princess dialect before I have to smack your ass back down to Earth.”

That was taken for the immediate challenge it was, Kala looked up at him with stern focus for a long moment, before dropping it utterly to grin right back. “Promises, promises. You are so full of it, Jay. Don’t think I didn’t see the look on your face when we landed,” she teased, but took his hand. “Come on, chicken. It’s a ways up and there are a lot of rooms in this place. You talked so much about it; it’s about time you saw what I really am.”

“I know what you really are,” Jay insisted, letting himself be tugged along. “The ultimate badass wrapped up in a pretty package. Guts and brains and one hell of a super-speed spin-kick. This is just background info—but don’t get me wrong, I like it. No such thing as too much information.”

She was laughing as they went, grinning at him. “And here he goes with the pretty words. You don’t have to lure me into bed anymore, Jay, so you don’t need to butter me up. And don’t think I’m not going to remember the ‘ultimate badass’ comment next week sometime when you’re bitching about me and some of my idiotic, crazy-ass game plans, okay?”

“Yeah, I’m probably gonna regret that,” he admitted, knowing full well that it was still true. Jay frowned a little then, thinking. “Won’t it get confusing, with Jason Todd and Jason Kent? Should you just have him call me Jay?”

She smirked at him. “We don’t do nicknames. No Kryptonian would ever call my father Kal; a few of the League do, and he’s fine with it, but names just aren’t shortened like that. Women sometimes get first name only, because our surname is our father’s full name until we get married. Hence Kala Kal-El … and Mom had no idea.”

Jay nodded, and she continued, “Jase doesn’t go by Jason here, either. Men don’t get two-syllable names like that. As far as Jor-El is concerned, Jase is Jon-El.”

“So El is the last name,” Jay said aloud.

“It’s the house name,” Kala supplied. “Jon of the House of El, but you would never say Jon alone, because a Kryptonian man is nothing without his house. I called myself Kala of the House of El, once, but the proper translation would be Kala, daughter of Kal of the House of El. Which is obnoxious, but you know, you deal.”

Jay looked at her, and said in serious tones, “Fuck the patriarchy.”

Her smiled dazzled him. “And that’s why I sleep with you.”

“Really? I thought it was the whole tastes-like-sunlight thing,” Jay teased.

Kala put a finger over his lips, laughing. “The only bed in this place is the one I was conceived in, so let’s not, okay?”

Jay started to laugh, then stalled. “Wait, up here? Whoa.”

“Yeah, where do you think they disappeared to for a day and a half?” she asked, grinning. “That’s why no one could find them.”

He shook his head. “Great. You can leave the bedroom off the tour, thanks. I’ve met your parents, and that’s not a visual I need.”

It was Kala’s turn to snort with amusement. “It is a cool-looking bed, though. Anyway, come on, there’s lots to see.”

She started to tug him along again, then slowed as something occurred to her. Something that slowed that gaiety in its tracks. Kala stopped for a moment then as her smile faded around the edges, her gaze going to his as she turned slightly. “I honestly should have brought you up here months ago, but I wasn’t sure, although it would have only been fair. Thank God you didn’t walk into it blind, thinking I was a normal human. Like I did with someone else.” Raising an eyebrow even as her brow furrowed slightly, she really looked at him. “It’s not all as cut and dry as you think. There’s still a lot about us, about me, that you don’t understand. My father, my family, I mean, we’re from another galaxy. Seriously, you just saw Jor-El and just the slightest inkling of the technology we have at our disposal and you still think this is normal?”

Jay just looked at her for a long moment. “You forget, I grew up a Superman fan. Somewhere I’ve still got a piece of tin he engraved his autograph on for me. I always knew the flying and the strength and the laser eyes came from another galaxy; I just didn’t care because it was fucking cool. I mean, shit, my dad goes around at night fighting bad guys with advanced tech and ninja skills while dressed like a freaking bat. My bar for ‘normal’ is basically gone.”

“And none of that in my case ever really freaked you out before? Even before … well, us?” Her eyes jittered away from his then, swallowing hard. It was a topic the both of them tried to stay away from, but they never could entirely. At least he couldn’t. “Not even the Empress? Seriously? I should have asked you before now, really, but…”

When he realized what she was really asking, Jay threw his head back and laughed. “No, Kala, I’m not freaked out by the fact that I’m fucking an alien. Whatever, you are so not the weirdest entry in my sexual history. And as for the Empress, she’s damn useful even if she is more of the ‘roast first, ask question later’ type.”

With her arms crossed under her chest, she just gave him the usual exasperated frown. “Geez, thanks. Not exactly the way I would have put it, and thank you for lumping me in amongst the rest now, Red. No, it’s just that a lot of people close to us know what we are and kinda take it for granted. The other aliens we know have a harder time passing for human; Kryptonians have no distinguishing features until we break out powers. That’s a little more freaky than the fact that Princess Donna was made of dirt. I mean, you can know one of us for years, and facing the reality of just how different we are, despite the looks, can mess with some people’s heads. I tried to be honest with you from the start.”

“I knew what you were from the beginning. C’mon, I’m not like Sebast,” Jay said, and immediately winced. “Wait, no, I didn’t … aw, fuck. K, you know Donna and I went skipping across worlds with Kyle. Not to mention Ra’s al Ghul dies and comes back again like he’s fucking Wile E. Coyote. J’onn has all the same strength as your dad and telepathy, and he’s obsessed with Oreos. Poison Ivy’s basically a plant. You being an alien just isn’t on my ‘freakout’ list, okay?”

Her lower lip was caught in her teeth, arms crossed. “It’s just complicated, that’s all. I’ve been spoiled a little, I guess. I was able to hide it for so long, I didn’t even know what it would be like to tell someone. Except horrible, and look, I was right. You … you’re the first one who ever knew, and I feel like I’ve kinda taken that for granted. Sad, but true.” That little self-deprecating smile again, a slight shrug. “But I’m glad. I don’t think about it too much. Never have. I always knew I was something different, even as a kid. Didn’t really realize just how much of separate lives I was up to until both were established pretty well.”

Talking about Sebast made Jay uncomfortable, and he shrugged, his shoulders staying just a bit hunched up. “You don’t tell people who you are. You just don’t. That’s not just you, it’s all of us. Which limits your dating pool to other capes, and people who don’t know the whole truth. Plus the occasional villain, kind of a Daddy Bats specialty. If the civilians find out, then, that’s different, but you don’t tell them. Hell, your dad never told your mom, did he? Sebast needs to calm the fuck down.”

“Thing is, Mom knew that she wanted the alien before she started to figure it out. This was the other way around. You do realize that this is completely the opposite of everything Sebast’s known in his life, right? Other than just being a citizen of Metropolis, finding out his best friend was half alien was the strangest thing that happened to him. I hid my powers from him the whole time. Jay, it wasn’t until I was sneaking off to Gotham every few days that he had the slightest clue. Can you imagine how much that has to freak someone out? I can’t imagine how any of the others would have reacted.”

It was only then that she glanced over again, seeing the look on his face. “Shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to bring this up. I just … you’re the one that gets it, you know? You knew who I was the moment I showed up, whether I wanted you to or not. I guess I just never expected anyone else to react otherwise.” Kala caught his arm again, determinedly smiling, the cloud of seconds before forcibly dashed. “C’mon. Never mind me and my whining. I promised you a tour.”

Privately, Jay still thought Sebast didn’t have any room to complain. Yeah, Kala was half-alien, so what? The alien half was Superman’s daughter. Instead of pursuing it, though, Jay just scoffed. “He’ll be fine. But yeah, gimme the tour. Where do you keep the lasered-off heads of guys who treated you wrong?”

One raven brow arched up at him. “Better warn you, there’s not any trophies of that type here. There was no enforced death penalty on Krypton. But there was the Phantom Zone. My grandfather was actually the one to discover that form of punishment, which had far worse effects than anyone expected. I think I told you a little bit about it before.”

“Yeah, eternal imprisonment? I think I’d take death, personally,” Jay said, falling into step beside her as she led the way. The crystals around them were lighting up as they moved, which Jay was gradually finding less creepy and more efficient.

Kala brought him down into the same chamber where they’d seen the hologram, only at floor level there was a truly massive column of crystal. When Kala held her hand out to it, it pulsed with light bright enough to make Jay close his eyes. “Medical diagnostic,” Kala said. “It sees better than x-ray, better than MRI. Right down to microscopic analysis if necessary. And it’s tied into the computer, so results can be logged, analyzed, and discussed with Jor-El. As a matter of fact, the AI is seeded throughout every level, not just in the father crystal I used a minute ago. Every bit of data in the whole computer can be run past him if necessary.”

“Sounds a little Big Brother to me,” Jay said dubiously, squinting at the crystal. “I know your family. There’s gotta be a reason one of these isn’t in every hospital in the world.”

“It’s too delicate to really operate anywhere outside a crystal matrix building,” Kala said with a sigh. “In a regular hospital, half the readings would be messed up. That, and it has to touch the skin to analyze you. Most people hate getting in an MRI because of how closed up it is. Can you imagine asking John Q. Public to lie down and let this sucker come sliding down to his chest?” To demonstrate, Kala laid her hand down on the smooth crystal surface beneath the diagnostic crystal.

It made the same creepy sliding-chiming kind of sound the console had made, and a twenty-foot crystal the width of a mature oak glided down to rest on her palm. Jay winced just looking at it; the damn thing had to weigh two or three tons. “Jesus fuck, if that thing slipped…”

“It doesn’t,” Kala said, sliding her hand out from under it. “It stops at contact, there’s no real pressure. But no ordinary person would sit still with it coming down on them.”

“I damn sure wouldn’t, and I trust you to fly me around,” Jay said with a shiver. The crystal had a point, it could just spear you if it did drop. More squish than spear, actually—getting that thing dropped on you would be like stomping on a jelly doughnut.

He heard Kala laugh lightly. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. There’s a reason why you wear that hood. Your expression? So easy to read. Let me guess. Squashed to ooze? They’re as strong as diamond, Jay. Actually, it takes a diamond-tipped drill to even chip it. But yeah, that’s why it’s a no-go. Honestly, it really sucks how much good the things we know would do if it could survive on the outside or if the usage didn’t get twisted by someone else’s plots.” It was clear that she was implying Luthor and the fuckery he’d pulled over the last few years.

“The diamond thing isn’t helping, K. At least squashed to ooze under a diamond is a classy way to go,” Jay tried to joke. He had to shrug at that poorly-veiled complaint, though. “Same thing as most of our tech. If Wayne Enterprises released half the shit we’ve got locked up in R&D, every militia on Earth would be all over it. It’s the way of the world. As soon as someone invents something cool, some fucker figures out how to make it a weapon.” Men like Luthor were unfortunately par for the course in their world.

“Says the man who might as well have a Gatling gun strapped to his shoulder.” Her grin was teasing, then she added a little more Kryptonian trivia to the board. “Actually, we’ve gotten a little lucky on that one. Lex has found out about some of the lower tech, but thank God, he hasn’t figured out how to access the schematics of the stuff used in the wars of Old Krypton. Pretty sure Grandfather has them sealed so tight that it’d take an act of Rao to unlock it outside the proper key-codes. I think Bruce would wet himself if he knew the kind of arsenal we’d be capable of if it interested Dad.”

With that kind of weaponry, Bruce might piss himself, but Jay would probably cream his jeans—and the thought certainly showed on his face. “Well, hell, who needs weapons when you can make s’mores with your eyes?” he said, trying to sound casual. “At least Luthor hasn’t gotten into any of it.”

“You’re really bad at hiding it, Jay. You’re even worse at hiding it from me.” Now she was leading the way further back into the crystalline structure. “It’s in the history console near the trophy room. After Luthor’s little break-in when I was a kid, Dad and Jor-El redesigned a little bit. Not all of the information on our people is stored in one place and in one crystal. Unless you know what you’re looking for and what each area here correlates to, good luck easily finding anything. To say we’re a little more cautious now would be an understatement.”

He could only shrug. Busted—but what else did she expect? Jay was a fighter by upbringing, inclination, and training. He couldn’t help but take notice of new weapons and the advantages thereof. “Of course. Having your whole cultural history hijacked by a greedy asshat like Luthor will do that. I’m surprised you don’t have, like, crystal attack golems.” A thoughtful pause, and then he added, “You don’t have those, do you?”

Now she openly laughed, that silvery and honest laughter that was totally genuine. “No, Jay, no crystal golems. Computerized weaponry to discourage unexpected and unwanted visitors and a robot or two, but somehow someone forgot to make that an option. You know, I remember hearing a story in the history lessons that there was something maybe similar that was grown during the Wars. It was organic, though. But that experiment came to a bad end.”

“With the kind of tech your grandpa had available, I’m glad we never got to see anything that came to a bad end,” Jay muttered, his shoulders tensing for a few seconds. The notion of such knowledge and power making mistakes … mistakes that his world might have to clean up … well, it wasn’t so surprising, but he was glad it hadn’t happened yet.

They came to another room, this one looking almost like a museum. There were displays of sculptures and images, including some holograms. In the center of the room was a scaled-down version of some immense domed building, made of the same white crystal as the Fortress itself. Even this small model somehow managed to convey the mass of the real thing. Jay shook off his pessimistic thoughts to approach it. “Whoa, what’s that?”

Kala walked behind him slowly, crossing her arms as she came. “That would be the Council Dome. The largest structure on Krypton in its last age. Most of the major decisions were made by a group of thirteen members from the oldest noble families. They were some of the brightest minds, but not always the most enlightened. Grandfather held a seat on the Council, which was part a salvation and part a tragedy, I think.” Her expression had clouded over again, her brow furrowed.

Jay knew a little of the history. “The Science Council, they were the ones who said your granddad was wrong and the planet wouldn’t explode, weren’t they? Too scared of what that would mean to let themselves see it.” He scoffed at that, having no patience for fools. But Kala had said something that piqued his curiosity. “How was Jor-El being on it both good and bad, K?”

He’d seen that look before, that look that said she had a lot on her mind at the same time that it said that the contents were loaded for bear. Kala took a deep breath, only to sigh it back out. “It was good because Jor-El was at ground zero to know exactly what the conditions were, try to prevent their foolishness, and to find a way out for his only son. The bad was the fact that the cowards drove the final nail in the family curse coffin. They decided that he would be the one to have the deciding vote in a very important trial, one that had been followed by the populace as a whole. And it’s doomed the House of El ever since.”

Something about that, either the tone of her voice or her careful phrasing, put the hair up on the back of Jay’s neck. An important trial that had doomed her whole family…? “Ah, shit,” he muttered. “It was Zod, wasn’t it?”

Kala looked at him with distant eyes. “Follow me,” she said, and they left the museum-room to go to another, which stayed strangely dark when they entered. Kala held her hand above a cluster of crystals in the floor, and by then Jay had gotten sort of used to the way the control panels grew up towards her. This was a much smaller grouping that emitted a ball of golden light.

With a few small gestures in the light, Kala seemed to be scrolling through some kind of menu, Kryptonese lettering floating in the middle of the room. When she found what she wanted, she closed her hand into a fist twice, and the light went out. Kala stepped back, and for the first time since they’d landed, her other hand crept into his. Her fingers were cold.

“It’s just a recording,” Kala told him, and then the trial of General Zod began to play in full 3D.

Through it all, Kala stood silent, pale, and still, eyes never leaving the projection. The shiver that ran across her skin wasn’t normal for her; even at the worst of times, her high body heat prevented her from feeling the worst of any weather. There were only two things that triggered that reaction in her and this was the one he’d only been told about. The couple of times he looked over at her, he’d been about to tell her to cut it off, but she squeezed his hand just enough to quell his urge.

“You will bow down before me, Jor-El! I swear it! No matter that it takes an eternity, you will bow down before me! Both you, and then one day, your heirs!” Zod roared, and damned if he didn’t look just as insane as any of Gotham’s rogues. Pure frothing rage at being defied, the incomprehension and madness when the world stopped spinning to his whim. Jay shivered just a little at the violence of it, and that was just his voice. At the time this had been recorded, none of them had had powers. That all came later, on Earth. All Zod had in that moment was his wrath.

And he’d made it work, too, in the end. He’d left his mark on the House of El for all time. He was the reason Kala’s parents split up before either of them knew her mom was pregnant. He was the underlying reason Superman withdrew from Earth and tried to find the remnants of Krypton. Lex Luthor had helped, of course, but if he hadn’t tried to step away from humanity after one disastrous attempt to live as one of them, Kal-El likely wouldn’t have been tempted.

If not for luck, and the inextinguishable spark of sunlight in Kala’s heart, he might’ve won again. And Jay had no desire to explore the bleak future she’d once painted for him, if Zod had managed to completely sway her.

He had no idea what to say. At last, Jay just turned and hugged her, squeezing Kala tight. “Thank God you killed the fucker,” he muttered.

It was clear that she was startled when he held her, but after a pause, her arms went around him, one encircling his back while the other stole up to curl in the hair at the back of his head. Her face buried in his neck, cool, so cool, Jay could feel her shudder deeply. He expected tears, it would be a given at a time like this, but she only shivered, clutching him just as tightly. After a time, she whispered out, “I … I almost didn’t. I was … a big enough idiot that I believed him, believed in what he had … planned. It was only when he took after Jason that I realized what … what I’d set in motion. I nearly got my whole family killed, Jay. Just because I wanted to mean something. Just because I thought I was special somehow. And he knew it.”

“But you do mean something,” he told her, holding Kala away from him just enough to look her in the eyes. “And you are special. Holy shit, how many people do think show up with a power-set like yours and would never dream of bleeding it all down to nothing just so they can learn to be a better fighter? How many people do you think walk away the first time they hear some shit like ‘Goth Barbie’? Or the fifth? Or the fiftieth? How many people do you think I’ve met, in everywhere I’ve gone and everything I’ve done, who could stand up to me and prove me wrong?”

Jay gave her a tiny shake. “K, listen. You were young and kinda dumb, and you fell in with someone much older and more experienced who had plans for you. You almost didn’t wake up in time to kill him, but almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Isn’t that what they say? You snapped out of it, you put his ass down, and the world’s a better place for it. So quit kicking yourself.”

“I can’t, Jay!” And despite the fear that still lingered, there was anger, too. A deep and complicated anger that, nonetheless, wasn’t aimed at him. “I can’t. Because if I do, it could happen again. That’s how we got the Empress in the first place.” Now the shine began in her eyes, though they were the furious variety of tears. Her chin was up, defiant. “And she might be a little tamer, but she’s not gone, Jay. Like it or not, we both know that I’m a weapon of mass-destruction if I ever forget.”

He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “Yeah, you have the power to be a weapon, but you’re more than that. Given that I’ve been armed and aimed by someone else, I’d know the difference between being someone and being something. Know what you are, K, but don’t ever think that’s all you are.”

She nodded slowly. “Still. This, among other reasons, is why Jor-El should never have been pressured to try and convict his closest friend. The First Elder should have had enough guts to do his dirty work for himself. I have blood on my hands because of something that happened two generations before I was born, and I can never take it back. And I’ll always carry the legacy of that guilt. That’s why it’s both salvation and damnation.”

He didn’t like her bleak, fatalistic tone, and Jay scowled at her, trying to figure out how to make her see herself the way he did. “So the fuck what? You think I couldn’t snap and take out half a city? I may not have your raw power, K, but I know how to do this shit better than you do. I fucking went to super-villain college, for chrissake—and my graduate adviser was someone called the Daughter of the Demon! I know a few things about mass fucking destruction. You can make the Empress work for you the same way I make all the deadly shit I learned work for me. But it doesn’t do you any good to keep tearing your hair about it. You fucked up, you’ve got scars where they don’t show, but you don’t give up or give in, and you’ll end up all right.”

That seemed to take the wind out of her sails pretty quickly, though the gleam still glittered in her eyes. Kala was shaking her head at him, biting at her lower lip. She took a deep breath in, shuddered a little, closing her eyes. “How the fuck do you know that? God, Jay, how is it you can see all this in me that I can’t? I mean, how are you not scared of all this shit in my head when half the community freaks over what they know and that’s not even a third of the truth?” The look she gave him then was so torn, it actually hurt.

“Because I have to convince myself of it every day? Jesus fuck, K, you’re talking to the guy who packed eight drug dealers’ heads into a goddamn duffel bag just to make a point. If I can be wearing a JLA comm and working with the good guys, you can be excused a little crispy-frying here and there. The only one who won’t forgive you is you.” Jay took a deep breath, and stepped back, shrugging the tension out of his shoulders. “Besides, the Empress only crops up when your ass is in deep shit, or when someone you care about is. She doesn’t come out to play just to burn her initials across Gotham.”

She was silent then, dropping her eyes with a sigh. Looked like maybe he had gotten through to her this time. “I’m an asshole. This wasn’t why I brought you here, Jay. The whole point was to show you the whole package, not just my monumental fuck-up.” Her hazel eyes glanced up then, rubbing her forehead. A tiny little smile then, sheepish and shaky, when she murmured, “Maybe you have a point. But you needed to see at least some of it. You showed me yours. If I can’t show you even a part of mine after this long… Really, Jay, I’m sorry.”

“No worries, K. We’ve been through enough, I’m okay with seeing the whole history. You’re not an asshole, either. That’s my job description.” He grinned, and as if to prove it, added, “The whole you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine thing usually means getting naked, though, so unless you wanna go there…” The laughter brimming in his voice made it clear that he was just giving her hell.

He saw the warning look begin to furrow her brow, but she lobbed it back just as quickly. “So not only do you manage to make me swear, repeatedly, in the Fortress, we attempt to scandalize the computer by hinting at sex. What a shame you already know about the bed situation. Can’t blame you for trying to deflect. I’d think you’ve seen enough of my drama to last a lifetime.” With that, she gave him a pretty good approximation of her usual come-hither smirk and strolled out of the room, back out into the main hallway.

“The only thing I’ve seen enough of for a lifetime is General Creepy there,” Jay shot back. “You? You’re decorative, K.”

“Oh, so that’s what I am to you. Decorative, huh?” Jay could hear the smirk in her voice. “Explains a lot. Thankfully for you, looking’s free. Again, such a shame. Shall we look into the armory? What’s not there can be accessed by a database.” Now she did bother to look over her shoulder, and yep, the right side of her lip was curled up mockingly. “That I at least know will hold your attention.”

“You hold my attention just fine, K,” he told her, dropping back half a pace to more obviously admire the sway of her hips. “The fact that you can handle any weapon, or go without ‘cause you’ve got ‘em built in, just ups the ante. But yeah, armory sounds good. Do I get any souvenirs to take home?”

“Yeah, just lay on the flattery, Red. I think I’ve heard all of your lines by now.” But she was grinning a little now. Must have caught the ‘souvenirs’ reference. “And sure, like Dad wouldn’t notice. Not to mention Jor-El. Although I don’t think you noticing and modifying things back home could hurt too much. That much I can comfortably explain away if anyone catches wind of it.”

“You know just how to make my day,” he laughed easily. “Let me guess, though. All the weapons are made out of crystal, too, right? That might be a bit noticeable in Gotham.”

She must have noticed something in his tone, though, because she stopped and turned to face him. Kala seemed to consider him then, one raven eyebrow arched and a tiny frown on her face, before responding, “Actually, not wholly. The original weapons from the Wars were a bit more like Earth’s, if what we’d call pretty hi-tech. It was only as time passed on and the planet itself began to change that the crystals were put into play on such a grand scale. There’s probably a trick or two we could use. It would startle the hell out of Bruce, at least. That is, if you see anything you like.”

Interesting. He’d always thought of Krypton, once he knew anything at all about it, as being heavily involved in the crystal technology. Hell, they could grow a house—or a Fortress—entirely out of the stuff, and get all the functions they needed from it. Power, light, water purification, temperature regulation, computing, the works. The fact that there were other methods and mediums available intrigued Jay. “I’m sure I can find something I like,” he said, grinning wolfishly at her.

She smirked that time, a tempting little curve of her lip that meant she was leaving the shadow of Zod behind her, for now. “Hmm. I wonder if you’re talking about more than weaponry. C’mon, Big Bad, it’s this way.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jay snorted at the nickname—for some reason Kala loved to call him the Big Bad Hood, as if he were a wolf or something. Well, he’d joked often enough about rearranging the words a bit so she was Riding Red Hood. Even though she’d never really been the kind of girl who had to be careful in the deep, dark forest. Kala brought her own light. And no woodsman was needed to save her, either, not that she’d ask to be rescued.

But once they started actually looking at the weapons, well … Jay didn’t quite drool. By a very narrow margin, he somehow managed not to. Instead he looked with hungry eyes at plasma rifles and smaller pistols that used the same deadly fuel. There were energy lances, too, but projectile weapons were more his style than anything so like a sword. Jay even found himself staring at the battle armor on display, its ornate patterns hypnotic. It shared little with the sleek, stark garments that he’d seen in holograms, which Kala explained by stating that it and some of the weapons came from an older age of Krypton. Before the wars and plagues that had made their society so antiseptic.

The older stuff was all organic curves, beautiful and deadly as a hurricane. He could see Kala wearing something like this and terrifying the shit out of half the rogues. Hell, Jay could see Superman wearing something like this and making all of them piss themselves. Then again, that was most of the reason why they wore bright capes instead of bold armor: the House of El was supposed to be a symbol of hope for Earth, not dominion. Still, it was fucking gorgeous, and Jay had no idea he’d muttered that aloud.

“It is, isn’t it?” Kala stood next to him, arms crossed. Contemplation and a little regret were in her voice as she sighed, “There are times that I think it’s a shame that some of this doesn’t see the light of day, but it’s far stronger defense than anything Earth needs about half the time. And even then, there’s us and our power set. Supers can be scary enough if they see us as a threat with those, sometimes. But, yeah, it really is. Jase and I even know how to use the lances, but they’re restricted to emergency purposes, period. I think Dad’s more than a little freaked over some of this stuff. Way more firepower than he’s willing to show. To the point that I’m pretty sure that yours are the first non-Kryptonian eyes to see them. Bruce would be faaar too interested, I know that. We all have our little secrets.” Her hazel eyes shifted to his blue. “Never say that I don’t trust you, Jay. I’m not even sure how much of this place Dad showed the others, and I know Jase didn’t show any of this part to Elise. Not that she was interested – any time she comes up, she’s glued to the diagnostic crystal, researching all kinds of microbiology and chemistry stuff.”

Surely there was some quip he could make, maybe something about how she hadn’t needed to take the joke about showing him hers so very literally, but for once Jay’s snark was silenced. Was he really the only human who had ever stood in this room, staring at these artifacts? Not even Bruce—not even the Batman who knew everything about everything—had seen this?

“I know you trust me,” he finally said in the low voice Kala knew meant utter seriousness. “Shit, K, I think trust’s a foregone conclusion with us by now. But this … this is something special. And you’re right, it probably shouldn’t get any wider exposure. If the general public knew the kinds of weapons tech you had, they’d flip. Not to mention the masks.” He managed not to touch the gauntlet of the armored suit before him, despite the fact that it seemed to call out to him.

Kala gave a little laugh at that, her smile flashing briefly. “Tell me about it. You haven’t actually seen the footage of the battles some of this stuff was fought in. Or how deadly they can be. It might have been over a thousand years ago back on Krypton, but they’d look at me even more sideways than they do now. Like they could, really. ‘Oh, that’s where she gets it from’. If they even knew half of the history…” Kala huffed out a laugh, fidgeting with the zipper at her throat.

Jay nodded slowly. “Yeah, they’d take it the wrong way. But you know, if you ever wanna have a movie night, I like martial arts films. I bet we’d have more fun than watching The Matrix, and less to tear down.”

That startled her out of that dark mood, those hazel eyes wide at his for a moment before she broke out in ringing laughter before she leaned into him. “You just … ugh, you irrepressible fucking man, you.”

Laughing, he nudged his nose against hers. “Hey, I’ll take that. No sane man could repress himself around you, anyway.” That earned him a kiss that spoke volumes. They’d successfully crossed some deep, potentially dangerous topics, and he preferred to keep them on lighter ground.

“Thank you. For getting it. And not running,” Kala sighed, leaning her forehead against his, pulling back a little to shake her head with a smirk. “You are the only person I know who’d find an excuse for double entendre in all this.”

He could only shrug. “Look, K, I don’t know how else to explain it. Yeah, this is freaky, and yeah, the public doesn’t need to know that the Supers haven’t all been pacifists for all of history. But I’m not that easily scared off. I knew most of your deal before we’d ever really met.”

He had a point, she knew he did; but after keeping Sebast in the dark had backfired so spectacularly, Kala needed to be as transparent as she could. Giving a quiet nod, she gave a telling sigh. “Yeah, you saw my file and didn’t falter once. Pushed me forward, anyway. And now you’ve added to it. I just … it was only fair. With everything you’ve told me, I needed someone to know all of it, even if there was a chance that the Goddamn Batman could find out. I figured that the easiest way to do that was to bring you here.”

Jay nodded, thoughtful. “I know, K. I gave you my file, too. It’s good to have someone who gets it. We know just about everything there is to know about each other; we’re partners.” He rubbed the small of her back gently, reflectively, then a little spark of mischief lit his eyes. “Besides, I had to update the file to include all the ass-kicking I taught you how to do. The student is a reflection of the master, and all that.”

That brought her head up, that defiant look in her eyes. Kala stuck her tongue out at him, as he’d hoped. “I told you over the summer I wasn’t gonna call you sensei. Or master. I’m not just your protege at this point, last time I checked. Or at least, I’d better not be.” She arched her brow at that; that was his girl, always keeping him in check.

Jay just smirked. “Hey, the best way to make sure you’ve got a good partner is train one up yourself. Why do you think Daddy Bats does it that way?”

“Oh, is that the way of it?” She took a step back to give him that sarcastic glare that was so her, crossing her arms as stared him down. “Got news for you, smart guy: I’m not your Robin, in any way, shape, or form.”

His eyes sparkled; they’d successfully dodged deeper waters, and she played right into his trolling. “Why not? You got the puns and everything. I’d like to see you running around in the outfit. Got the legs for it.”

She just rolled her eyes, her grin creeping back at that. “First of all, Red, you couldn’t handle it. I know you. Second, you should be glad I’m not as proper a Kryptonian as I wanted to be back in the day, or you would’ve never seen my legs at all. Technically my uniform is within the rules, but it would’ve had a flowing robe over it.” She paused then, looking puzzled for a second, then shrugged. “Which, if I’m honest, I guess the trench would have originally covered, first time out. I didn’t even think about that. Anyway, you’ve seen now that most Kryptonians didn’t dress like this. Except soldiers. Which, I guess, I did deliberately. Huh.”

He saw the shadow in her eyes, thinking of Zod, and Jay nudged her out of it. “I’m glad you’re a deviant, K. I’d really miss that filthy human connection we have.”

She scoffed, and said something in Kryptonese; by the tone and her expression, she’d called him something. “What’s that?” Jay asked, grinning. “Was that the Kryptonese word for ‘horndog’?”

 

 

Kala laughed, not even aware that she’d spoken in her own language just then to tell him he was the deviant. She was clearly getting too deep into her own head here in the Fortress when the native language just rolled off her tongue. Especially when using that particular term. Not that it didn’t suit. “No, it was basically ‘pervert’. ‘Horndog’ is far too slang. And too human,” she teased, flushing a bit.

You’re one too,” Jay pointed out. “You’re right there with me. Hell, the other night you started it and you were on top.”

How that shocked her after everything else, she’d never know, and worse, he was right. Dammit, Red. Unable to stop the way it brought a blush to her face, she shot him a wide-eyed reproving look. “Stop it, you. The AI can hear you! Quit it.” She should have known he’d do this; the more caught up in Krypton she got, the more he would remind her how human she was, as well. Still, there were some things she just couldn’t and wouldn’t say up here. Even with him tempting her.

He cocked his head, mischief in his gaze, and said, “Tell me in your language.”

This damn man, never frightened, not even slowed down by who and what she was. And she rose to it every time, uncovering things about herself that she had always been too frightened to show others. Afraid that they wouldn’t understand, even as she was so defiant about how different she was. The freedom with Jay made her almost giddy at times, letting go after so long. It was like free-fall and she had never known how to resist the tug of that euphoria. Beaming, laughing a little, she spoke swift syllables with a soft z in there somewhere, and then Kala smacked his arm lightly. “There, now you can say ‘Stop behaving like a child’ in Kryptonese.”

Oh, I’m a child now?” he laughed. “What does that make you? What’s the Kryptonese for cradle-robber?”

That earned him an utterly incredulous look. Oh, you asshole ! “You’re older than me, you jerk,” Kala laughed back.

Yeah? What’s the Kryptonese for jerk?”

He was not giving up. There wasn’t a literal translation, so Kala called him a pest instead. Grinning, Jay responded with something Slavic-sounding, and even though she didn’t know the language, she gave him a shove on general principles. The tone was indication enough. “I know that was something dickheaded, you asshole,” she snapped, but she was smiling, swatting at him. He always knew how to get her to play.

C’mon, K, I’m trying to learn the fun words first. Cuss me out in Kryptonese,” Jay retorted.

Oh, she should have seen that coming, too. Her utterly-irrepressible heathen would want nothing less, always pushing past the line. “Hate to disappoint you, and as much as I’d like to right now, I can’t, Robin,” she laughed. “I mean it. Literally, I can’t. There’s no record of any profanity. The closest you’re getting is like, deviant and brat.”

That’s a shame,” Jay said, looking somber. “A whole language worth of obscenities, lost to time.”

As usual, he had the ability to make her want to facepalm in the most epic of fashions. “Heartbreaking, I know. Devastating, honestly. Because the main recipient of the knowledge uses so much of it,” she snarked, just thinking of her father’s reaction. He rarely even said ‘damn’, and the salty vocabulary Kala had acquired from her mother made him look pained. “I mean, we don’t even know if they had profanity to start with,” Kala began, and he cut her off.

Every language has profanity,” Jay insisted. “Shit, every single language I know has a short phrase that means ‘your mom’s a whore’, and it’s usually a killing insult. The more repressed they are, the filthier the curses.”

Kala had to blow out a sigh, shaking her head with a roll of her eyes. Having been surrounded by boys most of her life, this surprised her not at all. “Charming. More the woe that the worst thing we have to call someone is ‘fatherless’. Which I technically was for six years, when you think about it.” The reality of it used to hurt a lot more than it did now, but she was old enough at this point to shrug it off. Despite having him in her life daily by then, the thought of being considered not only ‘deviant’ for the circumstances of her natural birth, but ‘fatherless’, as well… It hadn’t sat well with her in the aftermath of Dru-Zod’s influence. Thankfully, carefully-veiled discussions with Dr. Marrin about those issues and their reflections in cultures around the world had lessened it. Earth was not Krypton; she was beyond their fears and prejudices. She was more.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself back out of the dark thoughts, meeting Jay’s questioning gaze again. “It means more than just ‘bastard’, it’s like … no history, no ancestry, no name . Basically, you don’t exist. We only have that because there’s one record of someone who literally didn’t know his house name, back in the old days, and he tried to take that word as his surname to pretty much to flip everyone else off. All the rest, whatever existed, Jor-El didn’t copy it into the files. Likely to not pass the vulgarity on to the last of his kind, his only surviving descendants. Not that he had really planned any except Dad, of course. ”

Lame,” Jay complained, his irreverence making her snicker. “But I admire the balls on that one guy. Did they let him do it?”

No, because just speaking his name would’ve been unforgivably rude. Jay, we’re talking about a culture that has natural gendered nouns, and uses the gender-neutral in all cases except where absolutely necessary. It’s actually an insult to used the gendered form when you don’t have to.” Kala shook her head. “He ended up getting adopted into one of the leading families, I think. They admired his courage. Mom was hoping he was one of ours, turned out it was the House of Van, if I remember right. Which would be my paternal grandmother’s side of things. Which means that he wasn’t an El, technically, no genes added on the patriarchal side, but still … Related.” She couldn’t resist a laugh at that.

She would,” Jay chuckled. “Your mom’s a spitfire. C’mon, K, say something else in Kryptonese.”

That surprised her a little, but Kala knew it probably shouldn’t. As much as she expected all of this to give him pause, he hadn’t faltered for more than a few seconds. Not the reaction she had expected, especially here, even if he had taken almost everything else in stride. Maybe he was right; maybe she was too worried about something she shouldn’t be. And it was damn clear that he hadn’t planned to back away, even knowing how deep things were. That alone made her want to drag him off into a secluded corner, hidden somehow from the memories and ghosts of Krypton’s past. Lose herself in him until she could see it all through his eyes. Instead, knowing she couldn’t bring herself to do that here, she cut him a skeptical look and tossed off a challenge to distract herself. “I’d better not. Sounds like you’re developing a fetish, Robin.”

He smirked, and said something quickly in Cantonese that she only caught about half of – a dare, and he was calling her a coward for not taking him up on it.

That would not do at all. He knew better. Before she even considered it, Kala blurted out that he was a bothersome child, and saw his eyes flash as he caught the same syllables as before. Kala corrected it to bothersome boy , the vowel shift making the noun masculine – and in this context, intimate rather than insulting.

Still calling me a kid?” Jay laughed. “I was looking for new vocabulary. Tell me something better than that, K.”

He brought her out of herself, even here, where she felt so divided between worlds. Where she sometimes questioned where her future lay, or who she wanted to be. As beautiful as this place was, as stunned and awed as she had been for so very long, the Fortress had known very little laughter. Only she and Jase’s own as children, so very taken by their Daddy Clark’s ‘crystal castle’. Even for Mom and Dad, this place had been the setting for only a few scant hours of joy, of finding one another at last, only to lose it all in the same place within a day. Their chance lost to them even as she and her twin had begun to grow inside Lois’ womb.

In his unknowing way, Jay made his mark on this place with this visit, just as he had on her. And she had never been so grateful for him. <You mean too much to me,> Kala said, suddenly and carelessly, only realizing the words once they were out. Everything in her froze, not daring to breathe, knowing how fond her expression had been when she had spoken. They didn’t do major declarations like that, and not here of all places. God, he just utterly scuttled her at times, unable to believe the things she had just done.

His blue eyes bored into hers, Kala holding her breath, but Jay only smiled. “Did you just tell me I have a great ass in Kryptonese? It sounded complimentary, at least.”

God only knew what conclusions he was coming to over it, but it looked like he wasn’t going to pursue it. That left her almost light-headed with relief. “Something like that. Never mind, enough with the language jokes, ” Kala said, trying to make herself laugh. “Do you want to see something really cool?”

I’m already lookin’ at ya,” Jay replied just as swiftly.

And just like that, with something as goofy and sweet as it was, Kala felt herself chancing the danger again, just to hear the words aloud. He couldn’t know, didn’t want to know, but he never needed to. Just to say it once would be enough. Softly, she murmured, <I want you to stay. Please, do not run as you have before. Stay with me.> Her tone would make it sound like something else, some gentle remonstrance for his endless teasing, and Kala had no intention of translating that. No one had a working Kryptonian to English dictionary, anyway, so Jay couldn’t translate it. Thank God.

But maybe he had an inkling, and was as leery of planning ahead as she was. Jay nodded, solemn for a moment, but he couldn’t resist following up on her attempt to redirect the conversation. “Seriously, though, you’ve got something cooler than those weapons?”

And just like that, the moment was over, and her equilibrium returned. They had come close again, maybe too close, but they hadn’t gone too far. Their status quo remained the same. Just as they wanted it. There was more to life than words, right? More than believing in something that might not exist for some people, not the way those people said it did. Not everything was a fairytale. Gotham wasn’t a fairytale. They would take what they could get. Kala took a deep breath, and kept her tone light. “Dunno, Red. You tell me: is there anything cooler than interstellar spacecraft?”

Only stellar girlfriends,” Jay teased, and hugged her for a brief moment. “C’mon, show me the rocket ship. Is it the one your Dad arrived in?”

The second time, yeah,” Kala replied, feeling like she’d dodged a bullet, and led him off to the workshop area.

 

 

Lois growled at the front page layout in front of her. It looked wrong to her editorial instincts, but she couldn’t quite define why. Or how to fix it. Everything was done on the computer now, and she fussed with the layout a little, clicking and dragging, wishing for the days when they did this with cut-out bits of newsprint. It all just felt more real to her with actual paper in her hands. But time and technology were moving ever onward, and if the Daily Planet was going to survive in the digital age, its city editor had damn well better stay ahead of the curve.

She was in the office late, with almost no one else around, and when the elevator doors dinged open her head came up sharply. Even all these years later, Lois’ hand still dropped to her purse automatically. Too many encounters with rogues, too many years of making enemies of her own, and Lex still out there and occasionally casting trouble her way had made the protective instincts too deeply-graven in her at this hour. Thankfully, it was only her husband, who looked around to make sure they were alone in the City room before he approached her office. Lois smiled up at him, and as he opened the door she asked, “Here to drag me home kicking and screaming, Mr. Kent?”

I know better, Ms. Lane,” he said with a smile. “Although it’d be worth it for the rumor mill. If the custodial staff saw me carry you to the elevators slung over my shoulder…”

No one would believe it. And if anyone did, they’d start putting money aside for your funeral expenses.” They shared a laugh over that; time had not mellowed Mad Dog Lane, and no one who knew her well wanted it to happen, anyway.

What’s keeping you late, honey?” he asked, and Lois pushed her monitor around so he could see the offending layout. “Hmm. Yeah, I don’t quite like it either, but I can’t see what’s wrong.”

That’s the hell of it. If only I knew how to fix it,” Lois grumbled, glaring at the layout.

He pulled up a chair and sat down across from her. “Maybe what you need is to get your mind off it for a moment or two, let your subconscious sort it out.”

Like it or not, the man had a point. “Probably. But there’s not much that takes my mind off work, when I know this goes to press in the morning.” Lois rubbed her temples, closing her eyes.

He gave a soft laugh. “Well, there’s one thing I know will distract you.”

Even after this long, she felt a shiver whenever he did that. Just using that tone brought back a ridiculous amount of memories, most not seen by the public, Superman or no Superman. No doubt about it, they still had it bad for one another. Lois opened one eye and grinned, chuckling. “You quit that right now, hero. Never at the office. It’s like having sex in church. We both agreed to that. Look where that one make-out session in the supply closet almost landed us all those years ago.”

Clark shrugged. “Well, we’re married now. If anyone does catch us, it’s not like they have someone to tattle to. Even if Richard walked in, he’d just cheer us on.”

That broke Lois up again, knowing Richard absolutely would, just to aggravate her. But, to be fair, she would do just the same and nearly had several times since they had figured the four of their relationships out. “And borrow Lana’s old pompoms to do it,” Lois scoffed. “God, it hurts to realize it’s been like … seventeen, eighteen years? How has it been that long?”

He nodded. “There are people working here – as after-school interns – who weren’t even born yet when you and I got married. It’s terrifying. Seems like just yesterday you were shaking up sodas for me to open.”

Now that was more than twenty years ago. You can let it go any time. I was just trying to put the competition in its place from your first day here, Mr. Snappy-Punchy-Prose-Style.” She tried not to smirk, but failed. She could remember being more than willing to murder Perry that morning; oh, how the tables had turned since then.

I certainly found my place,” he told her warmly, those blue eyes deep and rich and knowing. She could tell, just looking at him, that he was thinking of certain very specific places, or perhaps positions.

Only one thing could pull her away from her first love and, damn him, he knew that, but she knew that she had that power, too. Now just wasn’t the time. Lois elbowed him lightly, glaring at him in mock-annoyance. “ Stop it . No one else believes you have a wicked streak, Kal-El. I remember how you got me back for that little trick with the soda.”

Very few people believe that you have a tender streak, but we both know I know better,” he observed. “Maybe I just learned devious underhanded tactics from you, after all these years.”

She smirked at him. “Maybe you were always just better at hiding your deviousness. Meanwhile I just wish I could get this damn layout settled.” Lois couldn’t help turning back to the computer screen, her brow furrowing.

I was trying to distract you,” he remonstrated. Lois gave a little shrug; she couldn’t silence the nagging sense of wrongness about that layout with happy thoughts. Maybe it would’ve worked for her sister Lucy, but Lois had always needed to face down trouble. Trying to distract herself just made her irritable.

Clark spoke again, in a much less jocular tone. “There is something we need to talk about, and it won’t spoil your glowering-at-the-front-page mood.”

That sounded … disturbing. And personal. “What’s that?” she asked, turning back to him with an arched brow.

He looked chagrined. “I talked to Kala when we went up to sun this morning. First she wanted my permission to bring Jay to the Fortress, and I agreed.”

Lois sat there for a moment, not sure how to feel about that. On one hand, there was shock at the fact that her daughter had made such a decision, but then again, it really shouldn’t have been. Even with everything considered, her feelings were complicated. “Seconded, but damn,” Lois said. “She goes from none of her significant others knowing who she is, being the one most determined to follow all the rules perfectly, to giving her Bat guided tours of the Fortress ? Wow . That’s pretty noteworthy, don’t you think?”

I do. We might have to start taking this seriously.” Clark raised his eyebrows humorously; they certainly hadn’t dismissed Kala’s relationship with Jay. But none of her other relationships had ever approached this kind of depth. The closest person to her had always been Sebast, and now that was more complicated than ever. Her lovers, though, Lois had always looked at them a little skeptically, never thinking her daughter would fully settle down. Until this news. If she’d taken Jay up to the Fortress, then she clearly believed this was a longer-term thing than anyone else before him. And Lois highly doubted if Jay even knew that.

Clark sighed, and continued, “I didn’t ask her why she wanted to take him up, but I could tell she was out of sorts. I finally convinced her to tell me what was wrong. Jason didn’t call her on their birthday.”

For a moment, Lois only stared. That floored her. Angry and frustrated, she could understand, but for Jason to shut Kal out like that? With everything else she had going on? That bordered on cruelty, with Kala, coming from Jason. The twins had always been close growing up; almost amoeba, to the point of that being a nickname for them until the end of childhood. They could communicate a whole conversation with just looks as kids, made up words that were nonsense to everyone but each other. How Jason had been so lonesome the first summer she had done a limited-stop tour, how Kala had cried like a baby when Jase went off to Johns-Hopkins. It had been worse when Jason had moved out to the Kent farm. Kala had flown out nearly every other night, brought him home for the night when the homesickness was too bad.

And now, over this, not even a phone call. On their birthday. Part of her wanted to erupt into profanity, but who could she blame for Jason’s stubbornness? The man in front of her was only half of it. Lois confined herself to a single groan of, “God damn it,” drawn out to three words.

He’s furious about Sebast finding out our identities,” Clark murmured.

No, he’s still pissed about Kal sleeping with Jason Todd. The whole Sebast thing is just throwing gasoline on the fire.” Lois flung herself backward in her chair, seeing herself in both of her children: Jason’s certainty that he knew best, and Kala’s equal determination not to let anyone rob her of her choices.

Jason loves her, but he doesn’t always understand her these days. As much as they have in common, they are very different in other ways. He wouldn’t be this angry if he wasn’t afraid for her,” Clark pointed out. “That’s what Jason fears most, you know, losing her.”

All of them knew that; eight years didn’t dim the nightmare Lex Luthor had plunged them all into with his revenge. Elliot had certainly helped them through the woods with it afterward, as veiled as everything they had had to tell him was, but he had confirmed that they all carried nightmares and scars, literal and figurative. That said, Lois had thought that they had all reached manageable levels with that. Jason couldn’t help it, though. His fears came from that horrible afternoon when they were six; the situation in Nevada had only made them worse. Still… “And he’s going to drive her away if he doesn’t pull his head out of his ass,” Lois complained, raking a hand through her silver hair in aggravation. “You can’t tell Kala what to do, we all know that. Even if she meant to do what you’re asking, and especially if she knows she’s wrong. She’ll turn herself inside out before she’ll give you the satisfaction of being obedient .”

She’s very much our child,” Clark sighed.

My child,” Lois replied ruefully, sighing.

Mine, too. How many times did I have to restart the Jor-El program to get it to accept the fact that I’d miscegenated with a human?” He arched his brows, making light of the whole affair, which definitely hadn’t been light at the time.

She couldn’t help scoffing at his choice of words. “Only you would pick a ten-dollar word for ‘knocked up’,” Lois said with a snort. “But you’re right, they both doubled down on our stubbornness. The question is, how do we stop them from butting heads?”

I think he’s still angry with me for intervening when he went after Jay,” Clark said quietly.

Oh, yeah, about that. “He’d better get the hell over it. If she was sixteen still, I could forgive him, but busting into the Batcave now ? Bruce is gonna hold onto that for years, and remind you whenever he needs to score points.” Lois scowled, tapping her nails on her desk. “I’ll talk to Jason. If you and I aren’t pissed about our cover being blown to one person, who has been a member of this family for years , he has to fall in line. And as for Kal’s love life, he’d better get over it. We had to. She’s gonna sleep with whoever she wants, and I’m just glad she didn’t pick an active super-villain. If she’s gonna do this, I’ll live with a ‘misunderstood’ anti-hero. At least he’s not currently blowing holes in people, even if he is one of Bruce’s boys.”

Lois,” Clark chided.

What? She might want to be you in heels, Kal-El, but she’s her mother’s daughter through and through. She fell for the bad boy, when she had no intention of doing it, just like I did a few too many times before you showed up. I bet it started out adversarial, turned into respect, and then whoops, they tripped over one another.” Lois gave an eloquent shrug. “Where else is Kala gonna find someone who can keep up with her, Kal-El? I mean, seriously? Civvies haven’t worked out, and she’s a little too sure of herself for the Titans crowd. Kal isn’t the Kid Flash-type. Or Gar, even? C’mon, she already confessed to having had a thing for Rokk after she and Jase’s little adventure a few years back. Between him and Powell, we should have guessed. Really, is it any surprise she picked a Robin? Not to mention, the edgiest of them, at that. Witty and snarky and dangerous and angry and a challenge all around, sound about right for our girl?”

Well, you eventually found yourself a nice guy,” Clark pointed out.

Accidentally. After he saved me mid-air from a falling helicopter. With a wicked streak that he keeps pretty well hidden,” Lois countered with an assessing look. “I found the single best person on the planet, but you can keep up with me. You don’t have to out-compete me in anything, and you see me as an equal. You see all the stuff I keep shoved down somewhere – you saw me. Who knows, maybe that’s what happened with these kids, too. Maybe Kala saw something more than the sarcasm and the guns. Maybe Jay saw past that Goth Barbie crap the kids give her. And maybe the fact that both of ‘em have been through hell way too young was a factor, too, even if we all tried to keep them from it.”

Oh, I’m certain it was,” Clark admitted. “I’ve seen them together. She got hit with a dose of fear toxin that brought out the Empress, and he managed to work with her anyway. No collateral damage. But she didn’t want to come in and calm down, so she bolted – and took him with her. By the time I got there, he’d already talked her down.”

Lois, meanwhile, ground her teeth. She knew her daughter, and knew how both of them reacted to terror. “Fear toxin. In Gotham. That’s just what she needs. We’re lucky she didn’t level a city block. And that fucker Scarecrow is lucky I don’t have him in my sights right now.”

Lois.” Her husband looked at her seriously. “I know that look, and absolutely not. Don’t go getting any ideas about marching over to Gotham and just shooting Bruce’s entire rogues gallery. Not an option.” He knew it was a mostly impossible threat, he always knew, but the threat always made her feel better. Someone with no deep connection to the place needed to do a little pruning. Joker in the hospital was a good start, but there were many more out there.

Sounds like a great weekend trip to me,” Lois replied, fire in her eyes at the thought, then sighed and leaned back in the chair. “I know, I know. I know I can’t and you won’t, and I know why, too. But they’re my babies, Kal-El. It doesn’t matter that they’re grown and Jason’s making me a grandma and Kala’s just putting more silver in my hair. I remember all the medications and carrying a pair of Epi-Pens everywhere and the macrobiotic shakes and listening to them wheeze. I remember them both being so big-eyed and weedy and so tiny. I know they’re grown now, and they’re heroes, and the world needs them but more importantly they need this, but you tell me some nutjob sprayed my daughter with fear toxin, I can’t help going full mama bear. I’d kill the sonofabitch for her and never regret it.”

He only shook his head slowly. Their differing views on lethal force had never been a source of strife; Lois had never told her husband to kill someone, and he’d never told her not to. He just tried to make sure she wasn’t in a position where she had to follow through – and she tried not to remind him that she wouldn’t lose any sleep if she was. “The kids will be all right,” he said finally. “Kala’s fine. She’s getting all of that under control, and I think the fact that Jay isn’t afraid of it has helped a great deal. He’s back home, he’s been following Bruce’s code, and the two of them are keeping each other stable instead of spinning out of control.”

It’s all working out the way we hoped,” Lois said with a shrug. “Jase is just mad as hell because she didn’t tell him. As for this with Sebast, I told Kala a while ago, we should’ve just told him.”

We don’t tell anyone,” Clark replied. “You’re right, though. It’s awfully hard to remember all the reasons why we keep it a secret, when we have to lie to the people we love. Maybe we should’ve made an exception for Sebast. It’s not worth second-guessing, now.”

Lois sighed heavily, and shook her head, her mind on what to say to Jason. She’d probably have to bring up the Gertrude promise. It wasn’t her place, but that would shake this out if nothing else did. Kidnapped, trapped on Luthor’s yacht, he and Kala had promised never to let anyone separate them. By refusing to call her, by refusing to accept her choices, Jason was breaking that old vow. And Lois telling him so would break his heart.

She sighed deeply. “I am worried about Kal and Jay, though. I mean, I trust her, don’t get me wrong. But I can see too well why Jase is freaking out. Kala has my snark, but she has your heart.”

Clark nodded. “And Jay needs that, I think. He’d most likely deny it, considering his history honestly, but it’s true. Bruce and Barbara have seen a change in him since the summer – not so much a change as the beginnings of a return to what we used to know. He was a good kid, Lois; as much as Bruce’s expectations were too high, he was trying his best in a difficult situation. He just … got lost, somewhere, in trying to figure out who he was. And it probably helps to have someone believe in him, the way Kala seems to. Sometimes a person who’s hurt and lonely and lost just needs someone to see them, and have a little faith.”

Lois’ lips quirked up. “You make Red Hood sound like a orphaned, injured baby honey badger, hero. That’s part of why I love you. And I guess you mean like a certain farm-fresh Kansas kid believed that snarky bitch in City was the best damn reporter in town?” She couldn’t resist the loving look she shot him, remembering the day all too well, for the years that had passed in-between. “You coulda picked anybody, Kent.”

He looked at her seriously. “You know the only reason I don’t complain when you call yourself that is because Ben taught me years ago that female dogs are usually in charge of the pack, right?”

And that was the man she knew and loved, the man who had come from another star to rock the orbit of her entire world to an absolute ‘t’. No one else knew her as well, as thoroughly as he did. She threw her hands up, laughing at him. “Kal-El! You are a veteran reporter, you’ve worked in the trenches, you live in Metropolis. You might not use it, but you’ve heard it for years. Give the ‘virgin ears’ routine a rest, Clark!”

At that, he chuckled. “Why would I have picked anyone else? I like a challenge, Lois. And you had your heart locked down pretty hard.”

Sighing, she could only nod. By the time he happened along, he was right; she had become pretty jaded by the ‘l’ word and its many subtle and unsubtle manipulations. “But you found a way in. And so does Kal, though not for the same reasons, thank God. She doesn’t get many challenges. And a Bat is definitely that, in lot of ways. You also have to look at how this started. She didn’t mean to fall for Jay, I know that much. Pretty sure Jay didn’t, either, if he has. She’s just as much out of sorts as he probably is. I just hope she wasn’t the only one that did. Just because they’re doing this doesn’t mean it’s love on both parts. We both know it doesn’t have to be love, especially in this life. I just hope it’s even, whatever it is.”

Very few people mean to fall in love,” Clark pointed out. “Lana certainly never meant to fall for the man who was still engaged to you at the time.”

Lois gave a little scoffing laugh. “Yeah, none of us do things the sensible way. I just … maybe I should’ve let the kids train earlier. Let Kala get her bad-boy crush out of the way when she was like fifteen and none of it was this serious. I was trying to keep her safe, but I might’ve just held her back. I probably…”

No,” Clark said, reaching out to stop her words with a finger over her lips. “Lois, you did the best you knew how for them – and I did, too. I agreed with you about keeping them out of capes as long as we could. I wanted our kids to have as normal a life as possible, and as safe a life as possible. We can’t keep them safe from everything unless we lock them up in little glass boxes, and they’d hate us for that.”

She leaned back to protest, “I know, but…”

No buts,” Clark told her sternly. “Lois, do you realize that everyone in the Titans is in awe of you? You went from never wanting kids, to thinking you couldn’t have them with me, to the mother everyone admires. And you may not wear a cape, but your presence is very well known in the community. These kids know who you are and what you’ve done, back at the beginning when we were all starting out and now. A lot of those kids have trouble at home, and they envy Jason and Kala. Because their mom loves them and will protect them no matter what. Just like you have from the start.”

Lois smiled sadly. She’d always wanted the best for the twins, and had never quite realized how their situation looked to all the rest. Despite never wanting children in her youth, her only reaction now was to want to gather all those screwed-up kids under her wing, too. Maybe … maybe they should have adopted like the others when the kids were young, but the twins were handful enough. But if they had, how many kids like Jay would have had a more realistic shot, without comparisons? Sometimes they had talked about how much Dick had gotten on with Clark, how sunny the boy had been…

As if he knew where her mind was, as he often did these days, Clark smiled. “Come on, don’t you remember when Dick was joking about getting us to adopt him? He was like seventeen and a half at the time, but I don’t think he was joking.”

Knowing our adorable Mr. Grayson, he wasn’t. Didn’t help that Daddy was not pleased with his choice of codename. Given a second chance, I would’ve done it. He’s practically one of ours, thanks to that,” Lois laughed, shaking her head; Dick had even joked that he had Clark’s coloring, he could pass as their kid with a tan. As she did so, her glance caught the front page still displayed on her monitor. Suddenly, the error was glaringly obvious, as was its solution. Switch that column to this side, push the photo up and trim the headline… Lois swiveled her chair around and made the adjustments quickly, biting her lip. “Yes! Now that looks like a newspaper!”

Clark glanced over her shoulder and nodded. “It’s perfect.”

Glad you approve, flyboy,” Lois teased, glancing up at him with a chuckle, and sent the layout off to the print department. “Now let’s go home. I need a glass of wine if I’m gonna kick some sense into my son tomorrow.”

I’ll be happy to get you there as fast as I can,” he said, with a twinkle in his royal blue eyes.

Lois grinned back, stealing a kiss. “That’s what I like to hear.”

 

Chapter Text

Jason expected a simple, quiet morning … but the moment he stepped onto the back porch with his coffee, he knew he wasn’t getting one. The mules and the goat weren’t standing at the gate staring at him, which meant they’d gotten out again, which meant he had to go find them before they wandered into the road. He needed a little peace and quiet, having been woken up too early by bad news yesterday, and last night’s rest just wasn’t enough to make up for it when he kept having nightmares. The same old nightmares, too, the ones where he was just a little too late to save someone. Where his hands slipped and Mom or Kala or Elise fell to their deaths.

On the day of, Elise had baked him a cake, and Dustin had dropped by to razz him about getting older, but the birthday party would be this Sunday. Maybe that would tire him out enough that he’d sleep properly. In the meantime, life didn’t stop just because he was having a hard time. Sighing, he set out to find his wandering livestock.

Jason had inherited the two mules, Patsy and Betty, from his grandfather Ben. They’d been riding animals in their younger years, but were mostly retired to what the locals called ‘pasture ornaments’ now. Jason would’ve been fine with that – he didn’t believe in abandoning animals just because they got older – but every once in a while one of them would take it into her head to go exploring. And so far, they’d proven to be a little too smart about opening gates and stall doors.

Their pasture-mate goat Clyde was loose too, a neutered male called a wether that had been bottle-raised and was incredibly tame. The breeder couldn’t bear to sell him to slaughter, so Clyde had ended up at the Kent farm when it was still Ben’s place, and Elise had rolled her eyes when they moved out here. Clyde was a charmer, but he was just as bad about opening gates as the two mule mares.

Jason found Clyde first. On the roof of one of the sheds, industriously chewing on the branches of an overhanging tree. “How in the…? Never mind,” he groaned, and checked with hearing and vision to make sure no one was looking this way before he jumped up. At least super-strength made retrieving crazy animals from weird situations easier. Jason locked Clyde in a stall; if he found himself in the pasture without his mule friends, he’d start bleating loudly and forlornly.

Now for the mules, and Jason didn’t see or hear them at first. He had to track their hoof prints, carrying a pair of halters and leads, and with a sinking heart he realized they’d headed for the road. At least this was Smallville, and what traffic there was had grown accustomed to livestock as a potential road hazard.

He found the wayward pair two dusty miles away, closer to town, casually eating all the hostas out of a flowerbed as the apparent resident of the home stood there staring at them and halfheartedly saying, “Shoo!” She was about ten years older than Jason, and looked completely flummoxed; this area was relatively new development, attracting the kinds of city people who wanted small-town charm but knew nothing of small-town life.

Jason growled through gritted teeth, “Git! ” and both mules’ heads came up. Betty pinned her ears back, and he growled again. “Don’t you dare run, park your truant butts right there, girls. Whoa, Patsy, whoa, Betty.”

“Thank you,” the lady said, and Jason nodded to her as he walked up to his mules. Betty let him halter her up, while Patsy danced back snorting. He called her name soothingly, and got her halter on too, only then turning to the woman whose garden had been their morning salad.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he told her with his best apologetic smile. “Mules are too smart for their own good sometimes. If you go to the hardware store in town and tell them Jason Kent sent you, they’ll put your replacement plants on my account.”

She tilted her head at his accent. “You’re not from here, are you? Oh, and it’s no trouble. The deer eat my flowers, too. No one told me about that, but they’re so pretty, I don’t mind.”

Jason remembered when he’d been enchanted by deer traipsing through his yard. That had been before they’d jumped the eight-foot fence around the garden and eaten every single tomato he and Elise had painstakingly planted, watered, and fertilized, though. Now, he didn’t begrudge Dustin the chance to hunt on his land. He didn’t tell the newcomer she’d be sick of deer in a year or two, if she stayed, only replying, “No ma’am, I’m from Metropolis. You’re not from here either.”

“Metropolis?” she said, eyebrows shooting up. Patsy edged toward her flowerbed, and Jason shook the lead rope slightly. “Oh man, what possessed you to move here? I came from Kansas City because the schools are top-notch and the crime’s nonexistent, but Metropolis? That’s like, the polar opposite of this town.”

“My dad’s from Smallville,” Jason explained. “I moved here for the same reason, pretty much. It’s a good place to raise kids, and my wife and I are expecting twins.” Something about the way this woman looked at him made Jason want to get the word ‘wife’ into that conversation quickly.

She smiled, a little chagrined, and held out her hand. “Samantha Cosgrove. Nice to meet you. Is this a normal thing in Smallville? Stray horses?”

“Mules,” Jason couldn’t help correcting as he shook with her. “Usually it’s goats or cows. If you have someone’s livestock in your yard, call the sheriff and describe them, especially the brand. The sheriff will usually know who to call to come and fetch them. Don’t go out if there are cattle – they can be aggressive, especially if it’s cows with their calves.”

Cows are aggressive?” she asked, her eyebrows going up.

Jason smiled, a little amused to realize that he – who had been born in Paris and lived in Metropolis and trained in Gotham – was thinking, city people, with the same despair as the old-timers. “Cows kill more people per year than sharks. They know exactly how big and strong they are. Most of the time they’re pretty shy, but any mother animal will defend her offspring. And when the mom is as big as a car, and probably has horns too, she can do some serious damage.”

“Wow. The more you know.” Samantha shook her head. “Thanks, Mr. Kent. I’ll keep that in mind. Look, um … other than killer cows, this is a good place, right?”

“The best,” he said, without hesitation or irony.

She nodded slowly. “It’s just … my daughter Regina, she’s a pretty exceptional kid. I can work remotely, and I picked this place out of a realtor’s brochure. I want the best for her. I’m a little worried she won’t quite fit in, though.” A laugh, and Samantha gave a self-deprecating smile. “I have no idea why I’m saying this to a total stranger.”

“I just have one of those faces,” Jason replied with a shrug. “They tell me I look like someone you can trust. I missed my calling, then – should’ve been a con man, instead of a cosmologist.”

“Cosmologist?” That put her eyebrows up, and Jason grinned.

“I’m at Johns Hopkins – about to take a gap year so my wife can get her degree first. This is a good place for it. We’re only two hours east of one of the largest radio telescope arrays in the country,” he pointed out. “Besides, Smallville … it might seem like an ordinary town, but there’s a pretty large tolerance for exceptional here. Even weird. Your daughter will be fine, I’m sure. Heck, we have most of the big-city trends. Thank high-speed internet for a lot of it, and…”

He’d been about to say, Thank my sister for bringing Goth fashion here ten years ago, but that burned in his chest. Thank his sister, indeed. If Jason had to move in the middle of the night because Sebast decided to go to the press, he’d thank her all the way to the Arctic and back.

Samantha looked at him worriedly, and he gave another disarming shrug. “I guess my family brought some city with us, too. The old guys who hang out in front of the general store are still talking about how my mom drives after something that happened when we were six.”

She grinned at that. “I find it hard to believe there’s anything weird about you, Mr. Kent. You’re right, you do have one of those honest faces.”

“You’d be surprised,” he laughed, and Patsy chose that moment to nudge him, hard. Caught off guard, Jason nearly stumbled, and looked into the mule’s deep brown eyes sternly. Something about her gaze suggested that she was laughing at him. “Hey! I guess that’s my cue to get these two home. If she’s not gonna have your flowerbeds for breakfast, the princess here wants her sweet feed.”

“Take care,” Samantha told him, and Jason turned to lead the two mules away.

Halfway up her drive, he called over his shoulder, “I’m serious about the hardware store! And they’ll tell you which flowers the deer won’t eat, too.”

“I might take you up on that!” she called back, waving, and Jason turned away again.

“You girls make a great first impression,” he scolded them as they walked. “The lady moves into a small town, probably never seen a cow in person, and she wakes up one morning to a couple of thieving old mules eating her flowers. I mean, it’s just rude. I know you’re the Dastardly Duo of Smallville, but come on.” Jason eyed them both, and while he could pretend that Betty looked contrite, Patsy decidedly didn’t. Then again, the bay mare had never looked contrite in all the years Jason had known her.

One year when he and Kala had gone to the county fair, they’d come home with deliciously sticky caramel apples. The farm animals were always an attraction, and it had never occurred to the twins not to wander over and see the mules just because they were still eating their fair treats. Patsy had reached over the fence and plucked Jason’s apple right out of his hand, eating it stick and all while he stared in shock. He’d been all of maybe twelve, at the time. Patsy had only looked at him mildly, as if it were his fault for tempting her.

And Kala had gotten Grandma to cut hers in half, so she could share with him.

A fist closed around Jason’s heart. Kala . His snarky goofball sister. She’d gone off and done the dumbest possible thing, like it was some kind of competition and she had to outdo Mom’s storied exploits and all their friends’ wildest tales. Yeah, Jason hooked up with Wonder Girl, Tim had held Steph’s hands through her labor, some of the other Titans had done weirder stuff … but Kala had to go and sleep with Red Hood.

The worst thing, the absolute worst thing about all of it, was the look in her eyes when she’d blown into town and kicked his butt. They’d quarreled all their lives, Kala’s temper had always run hotter than his, but Jason had never seen her so hurt and furious with him.

Everyone – even Dr. Marrin – had predicted that the twins would grow apart as they grew up. And to a certain extent, they had. Jason, who’d loved the piano, had let his passion for music become a hobby, something he did to relax. Meanwhile Kala had turned her voice into her calling. They sometimes went weeks without seeing each other, while she was on the road and he was buckled down with his textbooks.

But they’d never gone more than a few days without calling or texting or just liking each other’s memes on Facebook. She posted jokes about farmers on his wall, and when he’d posted a new profile picture while wearing plaid, she’d put up The Lumberjack Song from Monty Python every few hours for a couple of days, always disguising the link so he’d click on it. Meanwhile Jason followed four or five different meme groups just so he could post a new terrible pun on her wall each day.

The morning was spoiled, Jason decided, and he picked up the pace to a comfortable jog. Patsy pinned her ears and whinnied a complaint, but he tugged the lead rope. “Better work off that breakfast, old girl. I’ve seen you gallop around the pasture, don’t act like you can’t trot.”

He got them home and put away and found the loose board they’d worked free, nailing it back into place. He let Clyde into the pasture too, because the goat was already blatting his displeasure with a sound eerily like a very hoarse person yelling in complaining tones. By the time he made it back to the porch and his now cold and bitter coffee, Elise was already up and out for the day.

She’d left him a note, stuck to the coffee mug. Call your mom.

“Oh, great,” Jason sighed.

 

 

When the phone rang, Lois got up to close her office door. The rest of the Planet staff knew not to bother her when it was closed; the fact that it was soundproof to anything short of super-hearing helped, too. Taking a deep breath, she readied herself for the argument to come. With Kala, she had no such problems with their personalities being so much alike. They’d fight, they’d yell, and whoever was wrong would grudgingly back down. Eventually. With her mostly-sweet, often-bullheaded boy, she always found it harder. Only once she had herself centered did she pick up the phone. “Hello, Jason.”

“Hi, Mom,” he said, already sounding weary.

Oh, yeah, he knew what was coming. And knew all too well he deserved it. “Elise told me you were out and about,” she said. “Did you get everything sorted?”

It was her son’s turn to sigh. “Yeah, I caught the mules and brought them back. I owe some lady closer to town a new flowerbed, though. We’re seeing more city people in Smallville these days.”

“Oh, I see.” That arched an eyebrow, Lois just chuckling. “City people, huh? And just what do you think you are, Jason Kent? The American Hospital in Paris isn’t exactly rural.”

He laughed at that. “City with sense, maybe? She thought she could chase off the mules by saying ‘Shoo’ at them. Didn’t know a mule from a horse, either. Still likes deer even though they eat her flowers, too. Wait ‘til it snows, and she finds out the town plow doesn’t get out her way until after noon.”

“Well, she’ll either adjust, or move away,” Lois said philosophically. They both knew she could never live in Smallville full time, but she knew enough about small-town life to keep from embarrassing her husband or her son.

“She said she moved here for the schools. Hopefully that’ll keep her. Lana and Uncle Bruce have donated enough money to the school system to make Smallville pretty attractive to people who are tired of big-city problems.” Jason sighed again, and said, “You didn’t call to talk about my adventures in mule-catching, Mom. What’s up?”

Lois let the silence draw on for a moment, letting him stew over it. It wasn’t really a question, if they were both honest. “I think we both know what’s up,” she replied, her disapproval just starting to color her tone. “Jason, why didn’t you didn’t call your sister on your birthday?”

That got the most extravagant sigh yet, one that wouldn’t be physically possible without super-breath. “Mom. I knew she was going to call you and say something. She’s sleeping with Jason Todd, and apparently he’s driven all of her common sense right out, because now Sebast knows all about us. Like seriously, she couldn’t even blow the secret to someone she’s dating. She finally sleeps with someone who already knows, and screws it up with someone who doesn’t, and who has every reason to hate her right now! We’re just lucky he decided to call Elise instead of going to the press!”

It was her turn to sigh, knowing that he would’ve phrased that more bluntly if speaking to anyone but her. As if she hadn’t heard this same argument so many times before, from the time they turned eleven. “Jason … it’s not Jay’s fault.”

“He coulda left her alone,” he replied stubbornly.

His mother couldn’t resist rolling her eyes; yep, here they were going again. “It doesn’t sound like a one-sided thing, and I’m going to remind you to give your sister a little more credit. I didn’t raise a damsel in distress and you know that better than anyone,” Lois retorted. “It’s not like he chased her down and carried her off over his shoulder like a caveman, Jason.”

“Yeah, no, you’re right; she’d strangle him for that,” he said offhandedly. A little chill ran down Lois’ spine, at that – they all knew Kala could, and might, actually kill a man for trying to assault her. Lois couldn’t bring herself to feel pity for any man that tried.

Jason continued, “She’s just being an idiot because he’s a pretty bad-boy type. I mean, don’t all Goth girls have a biker phase?”

Good Lord, this child. As if he hadn’t gone through an unexpected demigoddess phase that had set the hero-set a-flutter a few years back. “Jason. There are plenty of bad boys in the community, and with most of them she could’ve kept it quieter for longer. She would’ve gotten less shit for it, too. If she was just going through a phase, why didn’t she do it before now?”

He scoffed. “Because she wasn’t in the community, Mom. She just hung out on the fringes. And I’m kinda glad, because we heard enough crap aimed at Cassie about ‘collecting the set’. No, this is just Kala being as outrageous as possible, as usual. She’s done it ever since she was a kid. We ought to just glad she made it as a rock singer, otherwise her fallback plan was becoming a pirate. She does it for the attention, we all know she does.”

Lois rubbed her temples, wishing she could smack her son upside the head. She wouldn’t remind him that his own first career choice was giant radioactive lizard. “Honey, I really don’t think this is for the attention. This has been going on since August, from what I gather. And they kept it quiet as long as possible, even from the Bats. If she wanted the attention, you know she would’ve told us all when she got back. Tim would’ve been talking about it, too; and don’t think he would’ve resisted telling you. I know you two boys. Not to mention, Kala might try to shock you and me, but she wouldn’t do that to your dad.”

“Of course not. And Dad has to be so noble, he’s trying to justify it to himself,” Jason said bitterly.

Letting out her breath in a huff, Lois found herself having to defend her daughter’s boyfriend. “Look, Jase, I’m going to have to stop you there. If you can stop fuming for five seconds, Mom needs to be devil’s advocate here, accurate as it might be at times. First of all, you need to take a minute and take a deep breath.” She heard him grumble with annoyance, but Jason went silent. “Now, you need to remember something: you never met him before you got in his face at the Cave. Everything you know is from rumors, and maybe from Tim. You need more to base on someone than just assumptions, especially being the child of two star reporters.”

“Former,” Jason couldn’t resist putting in, sounding so aggravated that Lois let the snark slide instead of laying in to him about that, which was what he wanted. He never could stand being in the hot seat with her.

“Watch yourself, smart-aleck. Difference is, I remember Jay as a kid. You were about ten and obsessed with getting the original imports of the Kaiju films, so you don’t.”

Again, Jason cut her off. “You only know what that is because of me, you know.”

“Yeah, I know; you wouldn’t shut up about them until you were about sixteen and had your entire online life revolving around it and even then, it was a struggle to get you to talk about anything else,” Lois cracked back before adding, “Now stop interrupting because we’re gonna talk about this, like it or not. Jay was an all right kid – a little smartass, but so were you two. Maybe some anger issues, but everyone forgets that Dick had that, too. No matter what else, Jason Todd was a good kid trying his best, from what I remember. Most of what happened to him back then was never his fault. Poor kid was screwed over from the start, and even being ‘rescued’ from a shitty life by Bruce still sucked, because he wasn’t Dick. I remember thinking that, the one time I got to meet him.” Lois thought back to that night with a sad smile; he’d been a tough, wise-cracking kid, full of fire and a need to prove himself, to change things however he could. Clark had been keeping her updated on this new baby bird Bruce had brought home. As many growing pains as they had had, she would never have expected the ending that Bruce’s thoughtless actions would prompt.

“Jay had a time of it; being second-in-line was harder than he expected, I think. Dick hadn’t been gone that long and he seemed really proud of being Robin, but those weren’t his pixie boots; Bruce never gave him his own. Your father could even see it. He couldn’t be Dick, was never going to be Dick, no matter how hard he tried, and trying to be what Bruce thought he wanted and needed was only going to hurt him in the end. It was Bruce’s way or the highway. Was Jay perfect? No. But even Dick wasn’t perfect in the beginning, when they first started working together. Jay was trying to find his way, trying to balance what he knew on the streets with what Bruce was trying to teach him. We all saw it. But he never got the chance to sort it all out, though, because of what happened to him.”

“Yeah, and he came back a psycho killer who wanted Bruce’s head on one side of his mantel, Joker’s on the other,” Jason growled.

And, of course, Jason was sticking to his guns. She had to hit him where he lived, like it or not. Her son was usually warm and welcoming, accepting of those who had been through half of what Jason Todd had. Time to knock him off his high-horse. “Who are we to judge, Jason? In light of what happened, can we really blame him?” Lois shot back, metaphorically loaded for bear. “Tell me you’ve heard even the Cliff’s Notes version of what happened to the boy – and he was a boy, he was younger than you were when Luthor took Kala. Hell, I’d cheerfully blow Joker’s head off, given half a chance, and I’ve never even met the miserable sonofabitch.” She’d heard through Kal-El that Joker was currently in the hospital, and Lois was definitely hoping his injuries were severe enough that he might only leave via the morgue.

“You’re not Uncle Bruce,” Jason replied stubbornly. “I don’t know if Bruce really believes that everyone deserves a chance at redemption – because he has to believe that, for himself. Or if he just thinks that if he killed once, he’d never quit. I don’t care. I signed up under Dad’s version of the no-kill rule. I can’t save all of the people who deserve saving, so I don’t have the authority to decide who deserves to die. This asshole runs around with guns, trying to kill Tim of all people.”

And there it was, most of Jason’s problem. Like all of his parents, he was fantastically loyal to his friends. “Does Tim even still blame him for that?” Lois asked, gently. Never mind that with all she’d heard, if Jay had really wanted to kill Tim, he would’ve succeeded. That little fact wouldn’t help her case. “Look, Jason, if you came that close to dying, and came back years later, how would you feel to find out your dad had put some other kid in the Superboy uniform? If all you wanted was to get back home, and you couldn’t because you were so broken you didn’t even know your name. If you thought your dad had never looked for you, if it seemed like he’d replaced you in no time at all, and if the guy who did it was still alive and running around free, still hurting people, still killing people. Not to mention, you’d be half crazy from how you came back. What would you do?”

“Not blame the guy who wore my hand-me-downs,” Jason muttered.

“You’ve had times where you and Kala were jealous of each other, and you grew up together,” Lois pointed out.

“That’s different. She’s my sister. If she, I dunno, picked up the pieces, I wouldn’t hurt her for it.” Jason was as stubborn as Lois herself, she knew, and she wouldn’t be able to move him on this.

“Well, you’re not him,” Lois said. “He did it, and he regrets it, and Tim forgave him. You can’t judge him forever on the worst thing he ever did.”

“I can’t?” Jason challenged.

She loved him with all her heart, but a swift kick in her child’s ass would not be out of place at the moment. Lois could almost hear her mother Ella laughing somewhere. Yep, she had more than earned a little of this back from her younger years, but ugh, these children. Lois had been keeping her voice down, knowing this conversation wasn’t audible outside the office anyway, but this part was spoken in a hushed whisper. “Okay, fine. You want to be like that? Quick reminder, Jason: your father walked out on me and the entire planet. He stole my memories and left me pregnant. I damn near had an abortion when I found out, because fucking Luthor was willing to take the credit for that, but in the end I couldn’t believe that he’d still be alive if he’d done that and so I tried getting my memories back, instead. Lucky me, I managed not to give up what turned out to be the greatest gift your father ever gave me. Congratulations, Jason, you know the worst things your parents ever did or thought about doing. Wanna judge us?”

A long pause followed. “Mom … I can’t blame you. I mean, I’m glad you didn’t, because I’m here and all, but given those circumstances, I couldn’t blame you. And Dad didn’t know you were pregnant. He regrets it, too, I can still see it in his eyes whenever we talk about when we were really little. Before he came back.”

“Then if you can forgive us, find a little scrap of compassion somewhere and forgive Jay,” Lois advised. “Because, baby boy, it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. Yeah, your sister’s always had a hard time with relationships, but she seems happy. And from what your dad said, seeing them together, Jay seems good with her. A lot more like he used to be.”

“He should be. He’s dating a lot better woman than he deserves,” Jason grumbled.

“So’s your dad,” Lois teased, and then turned solemn. “Jason. I love you. But as your mother, I’m telling you to yank the reindeer out from up your butt. Let it go. Kala’s not gonna break up with her boyfriend just because you threw a hissy fit. You might as well get over it now, because you’re not helping anything and it’s just going to bite you in the ass in the end.”

“Mom…” he began.

She drew in a deep breath, remembering him at ten, outraged that she and Richard were breaking up. Somehow the twins had gotten it in their heads that Mommy and Daddy Richard splitting up meant that they’d be split up, too, and Jason had intimidated both Kal-El and Richard into letting him and Kala go to Nana’s. “Jason Garen. Enough. Kala won’t give up just because you stamp your foot like you did when you were six, and wanted all four of us to move into the Riverside house and live happily ever after.”

He scoffed at her. “I was right then, too. You guys all go on vacations together now. I know plenty of kids of divorced and remarried parents, thanks to school and stuff, and Kal and I have the least family drama of any of them.”

Lois sighed yet again. Time to drop a little more truth on him. “Yeah, no, that would not have worked. I wouldn’t have been able to stand Lana and Richard canoodling all over the place. Richard wouldn’t have been able to handle me and Clark. And with your dad’s hearing, he would’ve died from sheer awkwardness.”

“But – ” Jason began.

She cut him off. “Not to mention the nightmare when Lana got pregnant. Seriously, you guys had no idea how bad it was. If she and I had been under the same roof, it would’ve gotten physical eventually. Everyone loves Kristin, but there’s a reason Lana never tried for another baby.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Jason protested.

“Oh, it was,” Lois said. “I’m not giving you specifics, because I don’t want you side-eyeing Lana; she was out of her head on pregnancy hormones, and the worst part was, she knew she was acting crazy. It didn’t stop her from almost slapping my face one time.”

“Holy shit,” Jason whispered.

“Yeah. I almost ran afoul of the dreaded Pimp Arm of Lana Lang,” Lois said dryly, remembering the incoherent rage in Lana’s eyes. That had been the only time she’d ever stepped back from the redhead, sure that any second Lana would take a swing at her – and it would’ve ended badly, no matter what. This long past, Lois couldn’t even remember what she’d done to set off the cheerleader, only that Richard had winced with his whole body, and Lana had gone from laughing to snarling in seconds.

She’d caught herself seconds later, and burst into tears, certain that she was destroying her marriage and her friendships. Lois wasn’t exactly a stranger to anxiety, but she’d been torn between righteous anger – no one had ever quite convinced Lois Lane to turn the other cheek – and despair at not being able to reassure Lana. It had been an ugly, unpleasant time for all of them, and thank God the worst of it had only been the last four months or so.

The end result was Kristin, though, and the Dormouse made up for all of it. “Look, Jase, Lana spent her whole pregnancy afraid that she was gonna be fat and unattractive forever, and she got the idea that Richard would leave her for me. It didn’t help that your dad and I were having trouble, too, and there was all that history with Richard. We knew how each other worked; it could’ve been an easy mistake to make. And contrary to office gossip, you don’t solve a love triangle times two with a foursome.”

“Eww,” Jason complained. “C’mon, Mom, I hear enough about me and Cassie and Tim. All right, fine, I was wrong when I was a kid.”

“And you might be wrong now, too,” Lois told him, pressing the point. “It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. You are going to drop it, and let your sister date whoever she wants. Otherwise I’m gonna buy one of those Get-Along shirts and stuff you both into it until you settle down.”

“Do you call that dating?” he muttered venomously.

Lois closed her eyes. Okay, this was going to hurt, but it was necessary. Sometimes you had to strike a low blow on a Kent man to wake him up. “That’s fine talk coming from someone who started dating Cassie Sandsmark after waking up hungover in her bed.”

“Hey!” Jason snapped. “That was different!”

“Maybe so. But even if you’re right about that, you’re gonna let your sister sleep with whoever she wants, too. That’s her choice.” Lois gritted her teeth, expecting him to snap at her again, but he’d fallen silent and she continued. “You’ve never seen them together. You’ve never talked to him, or talked to her about it. You’re just hearing Titans gossip, and you’re not listening to anyone who has any insight. You just wanna be angry, because he hurt your friend a few years ago. Which Tim is clearly dealing with better than you, son of mine.”

Yep, that was the last thing Jason had wanted to hear. She could hear her own bristly tone when he spoke again, could hear him pulling back in reaction. “Fine,” Jason said, as wounded and sulky as he’d been at six.

Lois struggled with the urge to have Clark fly her out there just so she could cross her arms and glare at him in person. She really should’ve done this face to face, but she thought he’d take more offense to her flying out to defend Kala than doing it over a phone line.

Then, there was also the fact that he was her precious boy, usually as sunny as his own father. She struggled with the urge to pick him up and hug him and kiss the frown-line between his brows, as impossible as that was now, until he trusted her that things would be all right. He’d always been the easier child, when they were tiny, more biddable than the grumpy little fire-siren that was Kala at that age. Now, though, not only could she not pick him up anymore, Lois found it harder than ever to move him when he was dug in.

She had to be the parent, though, and she had more than one child. Lois couldn’t soothe her son’s ego when he was breaking Kala’s heart. “Good. Now call your damn sister and wish her a happy birthday. Even if that’s all you say.”

He grumbled under his breath, but finally let out a titanic sigh. “Fine. You know I wouldn’t be mad at her if I wasn’t worried.”

Lois closed her eyes, rubbing at her temple with the hand not holding her phone. “I know. But Jason, you can’t keep the Gertrude promise if you won’t talk to her.”

That rocked him back on his heels, a wave of frost Lois could almost feel icing his next words. “Low blow, Mom.”

“It’s true, or I wouldn’t say it,” she replied. “And don’t forget, baby boy, I remember when you were seven and had the flu and Kala couldn’t sleep in bed with you, because we were too afraid of her getting it. I remember how she bawled and whined, and nothing we said or did could console her. I had to hold her all night to keep her from trying to take the door apart to get to you, while your dad stayed in the room with you.”

He went silent at that, and Lois continued softly, “I remember when Kala broke her arm the same year and you wouldn’t let go of her once we came back from the hospital. You cried more than she did – that might’ve been the morphine, though.”

“Yeah, I knew something was wrong but you guys had to take her in to get the cast,” Jason said quietly. “I was glad to see her again when you picked me up from school, but seeing her all loopy from the pain meds and with that big cast on her arm … it was the first time I realized she could actually get hurt. For real. And I wouldn’t be able to stop it.”

Lois smiled sadly. Every child learned eventually that the world wasn’t made out of cotton candy, and hers had seen it too soon. Little wonder that they both reacted by becoming protective of each other. “Both of you have grown up, and you might not throw tantrums whenever you’re apart more than three hours, but you still love each other just as much. I know that, Jason. So put down your anger, which is about half because of Tim and half because Kala managed to keep a secret for once, and love your twin.”

“I love you, Mom,” he said with a sigh and Lois could almost hear the weight fall from his shoulders. Being angry and blustery wasn’t a state Jason was comfortable with and she knew it; he just had a hard time letting go of things that had frustrated or scared him. Sometimes you just had to force it out of him while he fought the whole time. He was always the better for it. “And I love her, too. Even if she is the biggest boogerhead on Earth or Krypton.”

Laughing, Lois remembered all the years of teasing back and forth, Jason complaining about Kala’s big head and her raining on his parade by telling him he couldn’t grow up to be Godzilla. “I love you too. I’m going to go run my newspaper now.”

“Just try and keep Kala out of the gossip pages,” he said archly and hung up.

Lois scoffed. “Good son, my ass,” she chuckled. “He’s mine through and through.”

 

 

Kala was asleep on the tour bus, her dreaming mind full of images of Jay’s face, his icy blue eyes wide with wonder. She’d shown him around the Fortress, but they’d been up there almost too long, and she’d had to hustle back to the tour after dropping him off. No time for anything else, but he’d kissed her hard and promised her the birthday gift would make up for it. It had to – she was looking forward to dinner with her family, and their gifts, but seeing Jay always took her mind off the worst things. Her ‘weekend’ was actually Sunday and Monday, since the tour had back-to-back shows on Friday and Saturday, but the family – and Jay – had adapted to her unusual concept of weekend.

Her phone vibrated, waking her, and she fumbled it to her ear, saying rustily, “Hello?”

A pause, and then a slightly embarrassed male voice started to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, screwing up the scan because he had to insert ‘Belated’ into each line.

Kala sat up, covering her mouth, and tried to blink back the tears. She let Jason sing the whole song, and at the end he said, “Yeah, so … I love you, Kal.”

“I love you, too, Jase,” Kala said, her voice thick with emotion. “I love you so damn much.” She listened carefully to the rest of the bus, but everyone else was in the back, either asleep or close to it. Kala had insisted on some soundproofing for the loft, and she was the only one here. No one could overhear this conversation.

“Mom kicked my butt,” he said, apologetic. “So did Elise, but Mom knows just how to smack you hard enough to make you see the light. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Kala said, sniffling a little. “I shouldn’t have flown out and whaled on you.”

“Well, I shouldn’t have skipped over to Gotham and started crap with Uncle Bruce,” Jason admitted, with a short, bitter laugh. “Mom’s right, though, I don’t know anything about Jay Todd. I can’t judge. I just … Kala, I’m scared for you.”

“There’s nothing to be scared of,” she insisted. “And Jay’s … a lot like me, really, but with the added bonus of testosterone poisoning. Which, thank God I missed out on that bullshit.”

“Yeah no, I’m real glad to have a wild rock star sister and not a brother,” Jason laughed. “It’s just … Kal, we’re not seeing you as much lately. I know the tour is crazy, and I thought it was just that, but I found out you had more on your plate than I thought. And I don’t like it when I don’t know what my sister’s up to.”

“About five foot nine and a half,” she replied automatically, an old joke that made them both groan to hear it.

“You know what I mean,” Jason said, gently.

“Yeah, I do. And you know why I kept it on the down-low. This isn’t like Dustin or Marlene or even Nick.” Kala sighed, flopping back down onto the narrow bed.

“That scares me, too,” he said.

They were both quiet for a moment, and Kala finally replied, “You got married, Lizardboy. And you’ve got twins on the way. That’s a whole lot more time taken away from being the Terrible Twosome than anything I have on deck.”

“You’re more than welcome here. Elise likes you, obviously. And I’m hoping to cadge some free babysitting at some point.” He was trying to joke, but not doing so well at it.

Kala laughed, shaking her head. “You great big dope. Do you really think some fucking boy is gonna keep me away from you? There’s nowhere on this planet you can go that I can’t hear you, Dopey.”

“Yeah, I think about that sometimes,” Jason said. “It made my honeymoon real awkward.”

“Rest assured, I wasn’t listening in. Yuck.” Kala laughed softly. “I tuned out the whole world just for you.”

“Much appreciated. I just … damn. I have to deal with him somehow. Mom was threatening to stuff you and me into a Get-Along shirt, she better not think she can do that to me and him.” He sounded so grumpy, her sweet silly stone-headed brother, and Kala laughed.

“One, a Get-Along shirt for us would have to be like carbon-fiber steel-reinforced or something. And she’d still have to get us into the thing somehow,” Kala pointed out.

“She’d just make Dad help,” Jason chuckled.

“She would. But no one’s gonna try that with you and Jay. He’d never come near Metropolis again. Jay doesn’t take risks like that.” Kala did wonder, fleetingly, how the hell she was going to handle the eventual meeting of her brother and her lover.

“I wouldn’t hurt him,” Jase said, sounding wounded and surprised. “Heck, I’d be more worried about him showing up with kryptonite.”

Kala chuckled. “Yeah, he would. But Jay knows what we can do – not what we will do, what we could. Face it, we have a lot of power. And he’s been a bad guy. He knows what it feels like to look over his shoulder and wonder when we’re gonna drop onto his head. Hell, Jay spent the whole first month we were together worrying that Dad would laser off important parts. You? He knows you could squash him like a grape. You wouldn’t, I know that, but he doesn’t. Jay … doesn’t have a whole lot of trust in him.”

“Everyone keeps telling me that,” Jason sighed.

“Well, yeah. Y’know you and I had the ideal childhood, right? All the capes envy us. Both our parents are alive, our stepparents are cool, nobody’s evil, and we actually got therapy to help us cope with the childhood trauma that’s pretty much a required part of life for a hero’s kids. We’re the lucky ones.” Kala couldn’t help a ghostly laugh at the end of that. She knew it was all true, that to the others – the orphans, the abused, the endangered – she and Jason had lived under a protective crystal dome for most of their lives. Sometimes she called her brother ‘Golden Boy’, jealous of how his life seemed to fall neatly into place compared to her scattershot, dreamy ways … but to most of the people they worked with, they were both Golden Children.

“We had each other, too,” Jason said, as if he’d heard the run of her thoughts. “Most of them don’t get that. If they have siblings, there’s drama. You and me … everybody wishes they had a sister like mine. Little bit crazy, yeah, but you’re cool. And you always come swooping in to save my bacon.”

Kala caught her breath. “I … sorry, I needed to hear that. I didn’t want to be in this. But wherever you go, I can’t help but follow. I’m not ever gonna leave you alone. You’re my brother. If you’re in trouble, I’ll be there.”

“I love you,” he said, his voice shaking a little. “And I miss you, Kal. That’s what made me so mad, that it looked like he was gonna split us up.”

“No one will ever split us up,” she said, her voice shaking, too. “Anybody tries, I’ll kick the shit outta them. Jay’s hard-headed but he’s not dumb. And … I have a lotta feelings about this, but I don’t know where it’s going, or how far. We don’t really talk about it like that. You know how it is – you think too hard about something, it gets taken away from you. Look at Sebast.” She couldn’t help the way her voice broke on the end of that.

“Sebast wasn’t thinking hard enough,” Jason said. “Or he was thinking really hard about how he wanted things to be, not how they actually were. You can’t blame yourself for everything that happened, Kal.”

“Yeah, I can,” she whispered, closing her eyes tight against the threat of tears.

He sighed, sounding worried. “Kal … I know you’re pretty serious about Jay. But you’re really broken up about Sebast, too. What do you really want?”

That was the question, wasn’t it? She gave a soft, broken laugh. “I want Jay. I … I think I love him. But I want Sebast back, too. I miss him so much.”

“What if you can’t have both?” Jason asked gently.

She made a choked little noise, pressing a hand to the center of her chest. Kala knew it would come to this, if Sebast did come back it would have to be different. One of them would have to move out, or at the very least they’d have to have separate rooms, the closeness between them would have to be pushed back for sanity’s sake – for Jay’s sake. It would all have to change for them to stay friends, and that part of her relationship with Sebast would be over. Her heart ached to think of it … and ached just as much to think of giving up Jay. She needed him at her side in a fight, she needed his confidence in dealing with the Empress, she needed the safety that lay in him knowing the worst of her, all her darkness, all her flaws, and him just not caring. Jay saw her brighter than she was, and made her feel lighter, the weight of history lessened.

“I want both,” Kala whimpered. “I know, it’s all a mess, no matter what happens I’m gonna lose someone. But it’s not fair, Jase. I’m not like you, I didn’t meet the love of my life when I was fourteen, and I’m not like Dad. Clark and Superman both fell for the same woman. Sebast is the perfect match for me as KLK, and Jay’s the perfect match for the Blur. It’s not even about who I’m in bed with, it’s about who I am when I’m with them. They both know me like no one else – but different sides of me. I need them both like I need both sides of who I am.”

Jason was quiet, and she knew for him things were much easier. Superboy was just Jason in a uniform. He didn’t have the essential schism in his soul the way she did, a sharp divide even more fragmented than the two roles her father played. There was KLK onstage, and the Blur in uniform, and the shadow behind the Blur that answered to Empress. Underneath it all was Kala herself, Kala Lane-Kent, Kala Kal-El, just Kal. And she loved them both.

“I promise you, I didn’t plan for any of this,” Kala whispered.

“I know, Kal,” Jason said softly. “It’s just … this is the only thing I can’t help you with. If it was like, some guy hassling you, I could go punch him to the moon. But I can’t figure it out for you, and it’s tearing me apart. I don’t want my sister hurting.”

“I don’t wanna be hurting, either,” Kala said plaintively. “I just … Sebast and I were in denial for so long, we kept telling ourselves we were just friends. And I thought, maybe we wouldn’t have to choose. But I’m not like him, I can’t put my whole heart into my relationship with him and just screw somebody on the side. I can’t just be coworkers with benefits with Jay. It’d be so much easier if it worked out like that, but it’s more. Jay’s told me stuff that Bruce doesn’t know. I didn’t even plan to like Jay, he was such an ass when we met, but now … I can’t help it. I’m almost afraid for him to know how much. He runs from love, Jase, every woman he’s ever loved has royally screwed him over, all the way back to his bio mom handing him over to fucking Joker.”

Jason was quiet a moment. “Do you think he loves you, too?”

“I think so, but … Jase, he’d saw his arm off with a butter knife before he said it,” Kala replied. “I mean, he stayed even when he found out about me and Sebast. If it was just working together and sex, he’d have called it quits then. Hell, most guys would’ve bailed as soon as they realized I was sharing a bed with another guy.”

“Well, it’s Sebast,” Jason said reasonably. “He doesn’t swing that way.”

Kala laughed softly, rubbing her temples. “He did once. And when we had our big fight, he basically said he’s been thinking of swinging my way again. So, you know, I have that on my conscience too, making Sebast question his sexuality. And proving his parents’ most ignorant assumptions right.”

“Aw, shit,” Jason said, clearly surprised.

“Yeah. My love life is a mess. What else is new?” Kala just laughed softly, at her own superhuman ability to fuck things up. “Also it was over a year ago that this happened. So.”

“Yikes. Wait, if you knew that long ago, before you ever went to Gotham, then why didn’t you do something about it?” And that was her dear earnest brother, confused when the rest of the world wasn’t as clear-cut as his life.

Kala chuckled. “We were both drunk, Jase. It wasn’t like you and Cassie – she did everything but take out a billboard to let you know she was interested. Shit, I saw it, and I wasn’t even around you two that much. Sebast and I, we were both scared to cross that line. I don’t wanna be that girl chasing her gay best friend. So we didn’t say anything about it, everything went back to normal, and we didn’t talk about that night at all until the big fight in Denver. Nothing really changed , anyway, Marlene was on the next tour with us and it was all the same as it ever was. Until this past summer, when we were apart for so long. It hurt so much to leave him, and I missed him like crazy while I was in Gotham. He missed me, too. But I went to Gotham to get him out of my head, to stop pining … and it worked. For a while. Until I came back and he’d realized how much he missed me. But in the meantime, Jay happened.”

Jason sighed. “This is so gross to think about, but getting under someone else is supposed to get you over the person you’re missing.”

She scoffed at that. “For your information, I didn’t find myself up against a wall, on top of, or underneath Jason Todd until August. And also, it didn’t work out that way for me, so I guess my rebound button is broken.”

“TMI!” Jason yelped. “Okay, sorry, but you did not need to swing back like that.”

She shook her head slowly. “No, it was, well, not too long after we went against Joker. He was carrying kryptonite, and Jay tried to get me to leave, but I wouldn’t let him go toe to toe with his nightmare alone. I jumped in, and … have you ever seen Joker? Ever looked him in the eye?”

“Not that close,” Jason admitted, and she heard him shudder. “Everyone was real pissed when we found out you’d gone up against him.”

“Yeah. About that.” Her laugh was as dry as the last leaves falling from the trees, every drop of life and joy drained from it. “I’ve looked a lot of scary people in the eye, Jase. Luthor, Dru-Zod, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy. Joker is different. There’s nothing home behind his eyes. Even Ivy, cold as she is, it’s like looking into the windows of a house where maybe only one room gets lived in, but there’s still life there, still something. She might only care about one person, but she knows how to care. Joker … it was like looking into the windows of a house on fire. There’s nothing home but chaos and … not even rage. It’s fun to him. I’ll hear that laugh in my nightmares.”

“Jeez,” Jason whispered, in a small voice.

“I’d rather go on a cruise with Luthor and Dru-Zod than ever be that close to Joker again,” Kala said, as she’d never spoken to anyone else. The creeping horror still clutched at her belly with an ice-cold fist. “Luthor’s twisted, but we can handle him. Dru-Zod, I know what his deal is. He wouldn’t risk hurting me. Last of my kind, and all. If he were still around, still popping up in Metropolis every once in a while to remind us how he’d had me under his sway … I don’t think he’d last very long. Not like Joker has.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Jason replied coldly.

She gave a chilly laugh. “Don’t let Dad hear you say that.”

“Dad would do it too. He’d hate himself for it, but if he could get his hands on Zod, he’d break the bastard’s neck just like I would,” Jason said, in a level voice. “Zod’s the reason you think you’re not good enough, and either me or Dad would kill him for that alone.”

“That’s why I did it,” Kala whispered. “So you wouldn’t have to.”

“You shouldn’t have needed to,” Jason argued, his voice just as quiet as hers. “It shouldn’t have been up to you alone. But Kal … it had to be done. You know, I’ve got a streak of Mom in me too, but Dad doesn’t have that. Dad doesn’t want to kill them. If it was over you, he would.”

“And I don’t want that for him,” Kala insisted.

“Too bad. We love you. There’s nowhere you can go where we won’t follow.” His tone was implacable, almost fierce. “I might’ve been mad at you, Kala, but I’d never not love you. And this … this has been hard to understand. Nothing could make me walk away.”

“I love you, Jase,” Kala replied.

“I love you too. I won’t let anyone take you away from me,” Jason said, as he’d said to her in the dark of the Gertrude’s gallery. His voice broke, sounding like his six-year-old self again, and Kala whimpered to hear it, tears tracking down her cheeks. They had been two scared, lonely children, just realizing who their father was and what that meant for them – not the powers, not yet, it meant they were targets for men like Luthor.

Kala remembered Brutus’ hand closing around her forearm, bruising-tight, and she hadn’t understood at that age why a grown man would be so friendly to two strange children. She remembered crying out in pain, trying to get away – and the piano flying through the air. It landed across the room, Brutus hidden beneath it, Jason wheezing with effort. No one hurt Jason Kent’s sister.

Their roles reversed later on, as his strength grew, Jason never raising a hand to bullies when one punch could not just kill them, but obliterate them. He ignored the teasing and the nasty names, but Kala couldn’t. No one hurt Kala Lane-Kent’s brother. Call him a sissy, throw a rock at him, and she’d pounce with a shrill scream of fury, rubbing bigger kids’ faces in the dirt. She was smart enough to get them off school grounds, and even as a kid she knew the big boys would never tell that a little girl trounced them … but they left her brother alone.

It got complicated in the teenage years, when they’d quarreled over her boys and his infatuation with Giselle. She couldn’t blame him for that, not really. Giselle was a con artist hired to infiltrate their family. And her own dalliances with boys were just a preview of the relationship issues in her future. Still, in the worst hour of her life, Kala had fought her brother – but not hurt him. In fact she’d saved him from injury, when the battle between her father and Dru-Zod brought down half a ceiling.

And he’d saved her, later, after she’d locked herself into the lead-lined armory and pulled the trigger on the kryptonite gun. Killing Dru-Zod, and expecting to kill herself. Very nearly accomplishing that, too. Kala remembered their last words to each other, in what she’d thought would be her final moments.

 

 

A rattling wheeze beside her startled Kala, but she was too weak to flee. She realized she’d inadvertently crawled over to Dru-Zod, who lay trembling with the effects of the radiation. His skin had a terrible grayish pallor, and his eyes seemed wide and blind. “I’m sorry,” Kala managed to say, her voice grating. “Sorry it had … to be this way. But you … you would have killed us … all in the end. Everything … you did for me … was for revenge.”

Not … all,” he rasped back, turning his head toward her sightlessly.

Liar.” Her voice was now a harsh whisper.

The ghost of a chuckle turned into a cough. “Too late … for lies.”

Then … what?”

He was silent for several seconds, and Kala thought bitterly that it was just like him to die and leave her wondering. At last he spoke, his voice barely audible. “Father … brother … heirs of El … must die. You … needed you … rule beside me…”

Too late for lies,” Kala snarled harshly, and collapsed again in a coughing fit. The air seemed to have gone bad, scorching her lungs as she breathed, yet at the same time there wasn’t enough of it.

No … lie,” he managed. “You … Last Daughter … you … House of Zod … Queen, Empress…”

Only then did she understand the fate he’d intended for her. To rule at his side, to be the link between Krypton and humanity as he raised a new empire on Earth. Kala would have laughed if she could—that was her fantasy come true, to be recognized for the nobility of her Kryptonian blood, to play out every little girl’s dreams of being a princess.

With a harsh chortle, she told Dru-Zod, “Rather … die.”

To her surprise, he returned the laugh with a wheezing attempt at one. “Heir … of El … father’s … daughter.” His breathing suddenly grew harsher, and his spine arched as he strove desperately for air. Kala closed her eyes against the tears that now flowed, biting her lip; even though he had betrayed her, even though he had meant to turn her into a sort of puppet, it hurt her to watch him die.

Dru-Zod fell back, panting, and even through the ringing in her ears Kala heard the unevenness of his heartbeat. It would be soon, for him—and she would die soon after. It would be for the best. “I couldn’t … let you harm them. Not … my people. Not … my family. I’m sorry,” she whispered again.

No,” he replied, the merest modulation of his tortured breath. “Do not… Death … better than … oblivion… Better than … Zone…” He stiffened with a shuddering gasp, then let out that breath…

and did not take another. Kala felt her breath begin to wheeze, her eyes screwed shut, her lungs feeling heavy. Not long to go now. Now she was alone, dying, with only the hope that her father and brother were far away from here.

 

 

They hadn’t been far, though, both of them steeling themselves to save her, no matter what. Dad had peeled back the door then, unable to step inside the irradiated chamber, and Jason had rushed in, grabbing her up as her consciousness faded. The sun cured her, and from then on she and Jason had never seriously fought again. Until this with Jay.

And she still carried that moment with her, always would. When Kala’s back was against the wall, when it looked like her life was in danger, the Empress rose up to save her. Dru-Zod’s Empress, who would do whatever was necessary to protect herself and those she loved, who could look a nightmare in the face and not flinch.

Kala spoke quietly. “When I saw Joker, and realized he had kryptonite, I went full Empress. Jay didn’t realize it until after we had him in custody. That sick fuck kept taunting Jay, wanting to know why his own name wasn’t on Jay’s headstone. Give the craftsman his due, he said.”

Her brother – gentle, sweet, funny Jason, who could crush coal into diamond in his bare hands, but who lifted baby chicks out from under their mother with such infinite tenderness that not even a broody hen would peck him – growled under his breath at that. He didn’t even like Jay, but he would’ve broken Joker’s jaw to silence him if the words had been spoken in his hearing.

“I would have killed him for it, Jase. I was going to, and only Uncle Bruce stopped me.” She paused, but Jason deserved the truth. “The only thing keeping me from dropping by Gotham General and snapping his neck is the fact that he might die on his own, and save us the trouble.”

“I heard about it from Tim,” Jase said, his voice husky. “He said … they think it was Harley. You didn’t…?”

Kala managed a laugh. “If it was me, he wouldn’t be in the hospital. I wouldn’t even leave enough for the morgue. No, Harley did it. I was on the phone with Sebast at the time. Jay was with me, and Babs knows where we were, so we’re both clear. Besides, Jay texted me the next bit of news – Harley went to the ER Vet the same morning. Joker shot one of the hyenas, so she kicked his ass. Damn shame his men dropped him at the ER. Without brain surgery, he would’ve been toast.”

He squeaked a little at that, and Kala bared her teeth in unconscious imitation of Lois’ furious scowl. “Joker needs to die. For what he did to Jay, for what he did to Babs, for everything he’s done to everyone else, for everything he’ll do if he’s allowed to live. He beat a fifteen-year-old boy almost to death with a crowbar, Jase. Broke most of the bones in Jay’s body. I’ve seen the medical records and the x-rays. And he did it all for Bruce’s attention. So fuck Joker, if he survives this somehow, either me or Jay will get him in our sights when Bruce isn’t there, and it’ll be over.”

“I can’t blame you for that,” Jason said, horror shading his voice. “But Kala … you don’t have to be the one to do it.”

“Someone does. And it won’t be Bruce. I get it, but at least if I’m the one, it’ll be quick, and clean. And very certain. I’ve got enough heat vision to take him down to greasy smoke and bone fragments. Besides, if I do it, Bruce can’t blame Jay.”

Jason sighed. “Yeah, he can. Jay trained you. No matter what, if Joker dies, Bruce is gonna look at Jay. And this is one hell of a happy birthday conversation, you know it?”

Kala smiled sadly. “I think we needed to get some of this said. Not even Mom and Dad know all of it. Jase … I love you. Thank you for calling me.”

“I love you, too, Mothra. Thank you for answering,” he said.

“Yeah, well, with that serenade, maybe I shouldn’t have. Clearly I got the voice in the family,” she teased, letting all the darkness drift away. No matter what, he was still her brother, and they were still the only two who knew and loved each other as only twins did. They shared everything, even the womb, and now he understood why she was so fiercely protective of Jay.

“Don’t pick. I remember when Dad got you that karaoke machine when we were like eight and Mom swore up and down the windows were cracking,” Jason joked back, and things were all right again.

After a little more teasing and small talk, Kala could fall back asleep, her heart at peace. Then again, Jason had always been able to do that for her. No matter what tempest stirred her, Jason had always been her island of safety.

 

Chapter Text

The weekend arrived, and for Kala that was actually Sunday and Monday. The band was on stage Friday and Saturday, so other people’s weekend was her busiest time. As usual, the rock star life turned everything upside-down.

Sunday night was the family birthday party, with Mom and Dad, Richard and Lana and Kristin, and Jason and Elise even made it in. The Kent and White dogs ran back and forth in delight, getting petted by everyone. Kala had taken one look at her brother, her lower lip trembling, and had stumbled over to fall into his arms, the pair of them clinging to each other with half-sobbing laughter. Jason had picked her up and spun her around, and Elise had rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. Oh, those two. But things were right between them again, and everyone could see Kala couldn’t help the way the relief went to her head like champagne, making her giggly for the rest of the evening. Elise watched with her own level of relief; to have the twins, who were so close instinctively, off-balance pitched everything else into chaos.

Hugs and kisses and playful teasing, as was always the way with the Lane-Kent-White clan, and Elise sat back to watch the silliness. Her advancing pregnancy spared her most of the the twins’ roughhousing, at least. This particular birthday was more subdued than some; no renting out a hotel like Perry White had for their sweet sixteen, no over-the-top blow-out like the twins had planned and saved for at their twenty-first. It was fine, they’d all grown up, and the family appreciated this chance to get together more than they would a huge party. Besides, next year would be twenty-five. There was no telling what the lot of them could plan before then.

Another interesting fact about this particular celebration: everyone here, except Kristin, knew the family secret. And Elise knew Kristin’s inquisitive mind; their future journalist was sharp enough and close enough to the source that they all predicted that she wasn’t far from figuring it out. Like all teenagers, she was absorbed in her own struggles; Elise figured she had an extra dose of drama, with trying to navigate dating as a young lesbian, even in a city like Metropolis. But sometimes Elise caught her looking intently at Jason and Kala, that look that usually ended in pretty astute observations to the others, and wondered what she was thinking, how she was puzzling it out.

The only downside was the person who was missing, who’d come to the same conclusion. Elise had come with Jason as she had for years, but at every other birthday, Sebast would’ve been here, too. Every year since fifteen, even the years Elise herself had been away, making much over Kala the whole time. He was the one who made ridiculous, grandiose toasts to the twins, to Kala’s golden pipes and Jason’s firstborn scaly son, the damn iguana. If Elise felt his absence in the subdued celebration, so did the rest – but none of them mentioned it, not wanting to mar the day. He’d mailed a box to the Kents’ apartment, and she’d spotted Kala eyeing it with a troubled expression. The birthday girl herself was more somber than she usually was on these occasions, clearly feeling the loss, but would shrug it off as soon as someone spoke to her. Silently, the whole family took the cues to prompt her as soon as they noticed, trading quick looks. Their poor girl.

They all decided to open gifts first, and Kala reached boldly for that one immediately, tearing into it, biting her lip even as she kept her expression determined. A medium-sized flat box, and Elise knew it had to be clothes even before Kala drew the shimmering black blouse out of it. Only Sebast, or Lois, would buy clothes for Kala. Sebast knew her taste intimately, and Lois knew anything she liked in a darker tone would suit her daughter.

The blouse was somehow iridescent black, long-sleeved, the collar and cuffs glossy as raven’s wings. Kala whispered under her breath, “Wow,” as she held it up against her.

Lana reached over and fingered the sleeve, her designer’s instincts intrigued. “That’s very nice. I wonder how they managed the color.”

I like that. It’s got a lot of blue and green in it, somehow,” Elise said.

Kala looked at it for a long moment with the most longing look on her face, and Elise saw her eyes mist over, before she shook her head and took a deep breath. It took a moment, Jason reaching over to squeeze her shoulder in silent support, but Kala looked up and gave them a crooked smile that show she had it under control again. “I always said it, Sebast has great taste. In clothes, anyway. In men, not so much.”

Oh, Kal . They had all known it was going to be hard for her, that it was hard for her, but it hurt all the more to see. Sebast wasn’t having an easy time of it, either, Elise knew. But the family was determined to not let it dim the day anymore than it had to. They were not gonna go down that maudlin road, so before anyone else could step in, Elise arched her eyebrows and spoke up. “I don’t think he wants good taste in men. Come on, open mine next!”

Hey, it’s my turn!” Jason said indignantly, and tore into one of his gifts, which turned out to be from Lana. She’d evidently traded on her own experience in clothing stores, and gotten him a selection of extremely geeky science-themed t-shirts.

Safely redirected, Kala hurried to open her next gift, and cooed over the boots Elise had picked out for her. They wore the same size, as attested by the way her own shoes somehow ended up in Kala’s closet so often back in high school. And then the rest of the gifts, from practical to playful, books and jewelry and some gift cards too. Elise had gotten her husband a hoodie she’d had to import from Japan, with Godzilla emblazoned on the back. He loved it, of course. Richard had wrapped a tin of breath mints in five different boxes, and Kala rolled her eyes to see it, all of them laughing at his teasing. Elise just chuckled; that was par for the course with her other father-in-law. Richard was well-known for nesting-box Christmas present-wrapping, though he always reserved the most sadistic wrapping for Lois. No one would soon forget The Year of the Duct-Tape. “Well, open it,” he’d finally said, and she did, disclosing a collection of antique coins from around the world instead of mints.

It had become a thing in the twins’ childhood, Jason had told her over the years, the parents never fully exchanging their currency on coming back from a foreign trip, giving the kids coins from far away to flare their imagination until they could explore on their own. As time went on it had extended to older coins, starting with an Egyptian marketplace find that Lois had found out on a junket with Perry and setting all four of them to get more competitive over it. Jason had gotten Grecian coins last Christmas, Kala pouting at being left out. That hers now were of the same, only a little older, was enough to make her squeal with glee and hug Richard, gloating adorably over her prize to her brother. Jason only laughed and got her in a playful headlock, trying to steal the coins, Kristin launching from the couch to help him by tickling her big sister. Laughter ruled then, the tears forgotten for a while.

Everything wound down over dinner, beef bourguignon being the twins’ all-time favorite just like their dad, and then cake, a homemade white pumpkin honey cake with marscapone icing that Lana had discovered a few years ago, which had been deemed an instant classic by both Kala and Jason. Pleasantly stuffed, Kala and Jason thoroughly spoiled with gifts, the whole family basked in togetherness. Kala dropped onto the sofa next to Elise and leaned her head on Elise’s shoulder with an immense sigh. “Hey, incubator,” she said.

Hey, chanteuse,” Elise replied, and nudged her forehead against Kala’s affectionately, knowing the answer before she asked the question. “What’s up, Elvira?”

A gusty sigh at that, then a groan of frustrated aggravation she was all-too-familiar with, both twins making the same sound. “Just … you know. Missing somebody I have no business missing. And missing somebody else I have every right to miss for other reasons. And annoyed that I feel bad about both at the same time. And relieved and grateful that I get to see all of you guys, because I miss you, too. I will be so thrilled when this tour is over. Not that I want to think about what comes after.” Kala snaked an arm around her for a hug, pulling her feet up and leaning into her side, and Elise hugged her back as best she could. Yeah, poor Kala was tired and in emotional flux. She didn’t envy her the situation. With a sigh of her own, Elise pressed her lips against Kala’s black hair.

Jason was sitting with Kristin, looking at the photos in her phone from her last trip to the museum, and he glanced up. “No canoodling. I haven’t forgotten that whole ‘steal my woman and raise my children as your own’ thing yet.”

Elise chuckled at that, shaking her head at her husband as he winked at her. He’d seen his twin’s face, heard her tone; provoking her was the best thing he could do at the moment and it showed just how much they were getting along again. The Lizardboy and Elvira Show was now broadcasting just as it always had again. In its own kind of heartwarming predictability, Kala glanced up to coolly flip him off, which started Kristin giggling and made Lana give a long-suffering sigh. Kala leaned into Elise more, though she had careful of the belly separating them, closing her eyes on a smile. “You should be so lucky.”

After all of the turmoil that they had been through in the last few week, to see Jason and Kala just letting themselves relax and banter was a great thing. “Nah, I don’t have the patience for rock star drama,” Elise said lightly, playing with her sister-in-law’s hair, Kala leaning into her hand with a happy sigh. “Also I’m not interested in collecting the set. Unlike half your friends.”

Both twins snorted, but Kala looked at her slightly, seriously. There was a flash of real, absolutely unexpected honesty there, despite her teasing tone. “I’m glad Jase has you. Even if he did have to steal you from me in the first place.”

The other girl heard and understood her without a doubt. You’re lucky, you know and have what you want and how to keep it, don’t take it for granted. Oh, she read Kala loud and clear on that one. It had taken a while to make up her mind, but there were no regrets. Her place was here, among gods and monsters, shedding light in the darkness of their unknown, within this family of two worlds who only wanted to try to save it. Elise had come a long way before making that decision, taking the time to consider her options, and there was nowhere she’d rather be. The two of them locked gazes for a moment before she gave Kal a smile and a little nod, nudging her with her chin again. Nope, she was right where she needed to be, with these two doofuses still. “Yeah, well, you weren’t complaining at the time,” Elise replied, without rancor. “And quit whining, it’s not like I went far, when you think about it. I’m just glad you and Jason talked it out.”

That got a nod from where Kala had resettled her head on her shoulder. “We can’t stay mad at each other for long,” she admitted. “Even if he is a giant dork.”

And even if you’re the biggest boogerhead alive,” Jason added cheerfully from the couch.

Kristin sighed dramatically. “You guys need some new insults. You’ve been rolling on Lizardboy and Boogerhead and Dopey and Elvira since before I was born .”

Not true. Elvira didn’t come up until you were like seven,” Jason said, rumpling her auburn hair. “Mostly ‘cause Kala didn’t go Goth until fourteen or so.” That devilish light sparked in his eyes, one that the pair of them shared far more than either would admit. Elise also knew that when the both of them trained the look on you, you’d just be better off getting out of line of sight. Trying to stay out of mischief when they were united was a lost cause. “Hey, you know what, Kal? I could bring back Colonel Panda!”

Elise didn’t even need to see to know Kala glared at him. “And I could come over there and kick your butt, too, Canhead. Bet me I can’t.”

The unexpected memory made her crack up with unabashed hilarity. Elise had seen photos of Jason’s monster impression with the trash can over his head, and dissolved into laughter. Jason, though, had no idea Richard had shown her the video file he had with several of Jase’s outings, with very clear audio, titled Godzilla: The Early Years . “Stop! Come on, you guys, lay off. I’m too pregnant to laugh this hard.”

That got a snort of laughter from Kala. “Yeah, we need to put down puppy pads if we start the Kala and Jason Comedy Show,” she said, deadpan, and Elise elbowed her. She only grinned, and continued, “Okay, okay, I’ll cool it. I don’t want to startle you into an early labor. Try to hold on ‘til the tour’s over, okay? I have way too much on my plate to be an aunt, too.”

Now it was Elise’s turn to give her own amused snort. “You think my plate’s not full, too?”

“Of course it is, Dr. Thorne, but we all know our own mad scientist wouldn’t have it any other way,” Kala pointed out, the one to nudge this time.

Elise looked over at her, knowing this birthday was just a bit too melancholy without Sebast. They had danced around it long enough. Time to just ask one of her best and oldest friends what no one else was willing to right now. “You going to be all right, Kal?” she asked softly.

There was a poignant pause, then Kala reached for, and squeezed, her hand. Still, Kal wouldn’t look her in the face, hiding against her shoulder. “Yeah. Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” she heard her reply, before asking her about their latest choices for baby names, effectively redirecting the conversation.

That answer hadn’t sounded anywhere close to sincere to Elise, but what else could she do? Pry into her best friend’s psyche and make her cry on her birthday?

 

 

The next evening, Kala hung up on her agent and checked her texts, having felt the phone buzz while she talked to Jenna. Honestly she was just hoping for some kind of good news. Saturday night’s show was frankly grueling, with sound issues at the venue that forced them to start late and stay late. Derek had been on the verge of a complete meltdown the whole time. And Sunday dinner with her parents had been better than expected, with things between her and Jason back to normal. Still, she wasn’t looking forward to hitting the road again. The tension in the band was ratcheting up again. They believed her mysterious boyfriend was following the tour, which explained why she slipped out most nights, and kept razzing her about not just inviting him onto the bus. Kala couldn’t tell them she was flying to see him, of course, so she’d fobbed them off by saying it would be awkward. Like inviting Jenny onto the bus. That had made Robb, who was counting the days until he met her, blush furiously. Kala was grateful for that, since they all started razzing him instead of realizing that she had no intention of bringing Jay to the same loft she’d shared with Sebast.

Not that they could see him, anyway, since he was in Gotham, but the multiple lives she was leading required layers upon layers of misdirection. Kala was frankly growing tired of it all. Part of why her time with Jay was a relief was because she didn’t have to lie about anything, with him.

Enough wool-gathering. The text message was from Jay, and her heart lifted just to see it. You free tonight? I owe you a bday gift.

Smiling, Kala could imagine what sort of gift it might be. She quickly typed back, Now I am. What do you have for me? Did you wrap it special?

She could imagine him choking on air, reading that, but amazingly his response came back without keysmashing. The gift IS the wrapping. Come on over and see.

Now that was enough to pique her curiosity, and as soon as Kala could escape prying eyes, she flew to Gotham, and hovered to knock lightly at Jay’s window. He let her in, grinning mischievously. “Happy belated birthday, K,” he told her.

Oh, that was an ominous amount of amusement from the man before her. “Thanks,” Kala said, and leaned up to kiss him. Jay wrapped his arms around her, and for a long moment nothing existed but the two of them.

Kala would’ve been content to just stand there kissing him for half the night, but Jay drew back. “C’mon, I wanna see your face when you see this,” he said, and caught her hand, tugging her over to his closet.

Where a garment bag hung over the door. “You got me clothes?” Kala asked, curiously. Very few men bought clothes for women anymore … but then, after making her new uniform, Jay did have all her measurements, in more detail than even her costume designers. She didn’t let herself think about the other man whose gift to her had been clothing.

Just the one outfit,” Jay said, and unzipped the bag.

Inside was a simply beautiful dress, wine-red, with a long flaring skirt. Nipped in at the waist to follow her curves, with a halter top that left her back partly bare, it was enticing without being scandalous. Kala stroked the fabric, rich and silky. “This is gorgeous ,” she murmured.

You like it?” Jay asked, and still the light of mirth danced in his eyes.

I love it,” Kala said, and didn’t even begin to wonder where she’d wear it. For a dress like this, she’d find a venue.

Great,” Jay said, all but bouncing in place. “I got you shoes, too. You think you can change in less than an hour?”

Kala looked at him speculatively. “Where are we going?”

That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he said, gloating. “C’mon, change. I gotta get my suit on, too.”

She laughed, surrendering to whatever his evil plan was. “Good thing I keep a makeup bag here, now, isn’t it?”

You don’t even need makeup,” Jay scoffed, shedding his t-shirt. Now she saw the dress shirt and black suit hanging up, waiting for him to change.

Yeah, I do,” Kala laughed, and he was so obviously brimming over with delight that she caught it, too. “You’re crazy, you know that? But I…” love you for it almost left her mouth, and Kala bit her tongue before it could. Better not to ruin this night, just let it be whatever wild adventure Jay had in mind.

But you what?” he asked, looking over at her teasingly.

But I think I like that in a man,” Kala finished more safely.

Good. Because the crazy train never stops in the Todd household.” Jay finished shucking his clothes, and Kala stopped to eye him until he threw his pants at her. Laughing, she stripped down and ducked into the bathroom to do her makeup. She didn’t wear a lot of red, barring a few blouses stolen from her mother, whose color it was more often. Luckily Kala had enough neutrals in her palette to create a look that wouldn’t be swamped by the dress, or clash with it. She laid on the eyeliner so that the green in her hazel eyes stood out, and stepped back to look at herself.

From the doorway where he was fixing his cuffs, Jay said, “I never understood why it was hot to watch a woman put on her makeup. I’m getting it now. That might be the matching lingerie, though.”

Shut up,” Kala told him, and ducked past to shimmy into the dress. Given the halter top, she had to leave the bra off, since it would show. Luckily the dress had support in the bust. Jay came around to zip it up for her, and trailed his hands down her bare back to her waist. “Don’t make us late for whatever this is,” she warned.

I won’t,” Jay said, and kissed the back of her neck. Kala shivered at the press of his lips. “Take your hair down. We’re driving instead of flying. And it’s nice like that.”

Pushy, pushy,” she mock-complained, but did take her hair down from the messy bun it had been in most of the day. Kala finger-combed the waves into something like order, and Jay went to fetch her shoes.

They were flats, soft-soled, and at the sight of them she looked up at Jay. “I would’ve thought heels, with this dress.”

Then you thought wrong, Princess,” Jay said, his eyes laughing. “Let’s go get in the car.”

Where are we going?” she asked as they headed out to the elevator.

The art museum,” Jay said, grinning again.

I like art,” Kala said, her eyebrow creeping up as she wondered why they’d gotten dressed up for it. Was there some kind of party tonight? She hadn’t kept up with the Gotham social calendar – and was surprised that Jay had. A swanky party seemed like exactly the kind of thing he avoided.

When they arrived, Jay reluctantly handing over his prized Charger to the valet, Kala got out and saw the banner on the front of the museum. In bold script it proclaimed, ‘The Art of the Waltz,’ and Kala leaned against Jay’s arm. “You’re taking me waltzing for my birthday?” she whispered, and tried not to tear up. Her eyeliner wasn’t waterproof.

He looked at her, and apparently misinterpreted her expression, because his answer was, “Unless you’d rather do something else…”

Kala cut him off by grabbing his tie and yanking him down for a long, searing kiss. “No,” she said softly, “this is perfect. C’mon, Jaybird. Let’s go waltzing.”

His hand slipped down to the small of her back, and he was so damn proud of himself that it almost hurt to see. “Pretty good birthday present, then?”

Best birthday present,” Kala replied, slipping her arm around his waist. “You’re fucking brilliant. I don’t know of anyone else who would’ve thought of this.”

He beamed, and as they approached the door Jay asked, “Better than naming a bat after you?”

She rolled her eyes, and they walked in laughing, drawing everyone’s attention to the lovely young couple. “I love that bat, and it was very sweet of Dick, and I’m going to find a way to take her home. But there’s nothing romantic about the zoo,” Kala admitted.

Oh, you think this is romantic?” Jay asked, brows going up. “It’s an excuse to put my hands all over you for two hours. It’s sexy as hell.”

And you’re definitely getting laid afterward. Just don’t be a cynic.” They made their way toward the dance floor, and Kala could hear a string quartet playing all those lovely old tunes in waltz time.

Jay chuckled softly. “Can’t be a cynic when I’m trying to figure out just how many layers of puns around the word ‘wrap’ this actually is.”

That won him a sigh and another roll of her eyes. “Jesus fucking Christ, Robin.”

The band paused for a new number, Jay grinned, and they set off onto the dance floor together.

 

 

From the way she kissed him, Jay’s gift had smashed everyone else’s out of the park – and that was just the way he liked it. Dick had gone cutesy, well, Jay had gone old-school romantic as hell. Not that he admitted it out loud, but waltzing was classic . Besides, there’d be Wayne charity balls coming up with the holiday season, so he might as well get them both out for a fancy dress party they could enjoy .

And Jay was thoroughly enjoying himself. Kala was too. They were attracting plenty of smiling glances from other dancers; apparently they made a showy couple. That might’ve been the dress, though, which swirled with each turn. Or the sparkle in Kala’s eyes.

Jay had never done anything like this before. Hell, he’d never gone to prom because he’d never finished high school, first damn near dying and then going off to get his GED in murder instead. Formal dress and ballroom dancing just wasn’t something he’d done willingly , and never in a relationship. He’d taken it as required learning for a Wayne boy, and never believed he’d use it otherwise. But he and Kala both stretched way out of their comfort zones for each other.

Then again, the whole dating thing was weird anyway. He and Talia hadn’t had a whole lot of downtime together, he and Rose hadn’t either, and he’d finally gone on actual dates with Donna, who was delighted to go to dinner and movie like normal people did.

Kala, though … Kala was something else. She put her own spin on dating – no one else had ever been game to fly to Hong Kong for an evening on the town. And then here she was in Gotham with him, moving with her eyes closed in perfect harmony to the sounds of the band, as if they were just another pair of Gotham’s wealthy young well-bred citizens. Instead of, y’know, two vigilantes, one from the Gotham gutter and another from a whole other galaxy, both of whom usually spent their nights doing extremely risky and mostly illegal things. Man, her fans would be so confused. Jay chuckled, and she looked up at him curiously. “Clean up pretty nice, don’t we?” he said.

Yeah, we both do,” Kala replied, and squeezed his hand. “This is nice, Jaybird, but don’t go thinking this is all I want. I happen to like the whole package – and all the places you take me.”

Jay leaned in to kiss her cheek, and whispered, “I’ll remember you said that if we ever have to go down to the sewers.”

The playful light in her gaze turned solemn. “Seriously, Jay. Don’t ever change. Not for me, not for anybody.”

Step and turn, looking down at her, and he answered with more honesty than he’d meant to trot out tonight. “You might be the only person in my life who’s ever said that to me.”

Because I like you for you,” Kala said. “I know you don’t consider yourself a Wayne boy, and I don’t want you thinking that’s something I want you to be. I just want you. I’ll be just as happy beating the shit out of guys in the Bowery and curling up in your apartment with a book afterwards.”

Yeah, but then I don’t get to watch you move in this dress,” Jay said, his lips curving up in a smile. “Trust me, Princess, it’s not exactly a hardship.”

Kala just rolled her eyes. “You in a suit is pretty damn good, too. I just don’t want you thinking this is all I want.”

Think I’ve got that. You enjoy the back-alley stuff a little too much to want to clean me up,” Jay said lightly. Honestly, he was a little relieved to hear her say it. Kala had been so openly delighted from the moment she saw the banners outside – hell, from the moment she saw the dress – that for a few seconds he’d felt bad for not taking her places like this before.

But the beautiful lady in the fancy dress dancing with him was just one more facet of who Kala really was. He knew about the hero, the rock star, and the shadow she’d rather not admit to. Just like she knew about the Robin, the crime boss, and the classic lit aficionado. There were far more than just two sides to either of them. The more Jay knew about Kala, the more he liked.

And hell, he could strip it all down to basics, to just this – the chemistry between them. The way they read each other and responded to every move, whether it was dancing or sex or sparring or out there on the street risking their lives. Kala never had to glance down at his feet while they danced, just knowing where he was all the time. Wherever they were together, whichever of their selves they happened to be at the time, she just fit perfectly beside him.

You’re thinking some really deep thoughts,” Kala said, drawing him out of his reverie. And then, with a small smile, she added teasingly, “I can tell by the burning smell.”

Jay gave her a crooked grin, and spun her a little more vigorously. “Something’s burning? Must be you, over-thinking it. Trust me, Kala, no man is looking at you in that dress and thinking anything more complicated than the average caveman.”

She swatted his shoulder lightly and muttered, “Jerk,” but at least he’d distracted her from any serious line of thought. And unless he wanted her to start wondering what was on his mind, he’d better lay all that aside, too. Jay took a deep breath, and let himself just enjoy this moment, dancing with the most beautiful woman he knew. Kala swayed in his arms, smiling indulgently at him, and Jay let himself get lost in her hazel eyes.

 

 

Kala danced the soles right out of her new shoes – but she and Jay could only laugh. After an evening of dancing, champagne, fancy hors d’ouvres, and plenty of flirty banter, he drove them both home, Kala sitting barefoot in the passenger side of the Charger.

She watched him drive and her heart pounded at the walls of her chest like it wanted to escape. How in the actual hell had the acidic, overtly-critical barbarian she met that first night turned out to be someone so damn perfect that he could have chosen a night like this? Kala had to admit, there were times when she liked dressing up and going out on the town. Her grandmother Ella had been a blueblood, of the New England Tremaines, and sometimes she liked letting that side of her heritage out to play. Fancy dresses and old-fashioned dances and damn, did Jay have to look that good in a suit?

When he shifted gears, she put her hand over his, just enough to make him look at her. “It really was the best surprise,” Kala told him.

This time, Jay’s smile wasn’t leering, or nervous. Just warm and full of proud satisfaction. “Good,” he said.

She sat back in the seat, watching his expression, and said, “Just don’t you dare cut this dress off me when we get back. I want to wear it again sometime.”

Jay grinned at that. “I think I can manage that, Princess. No promises on the panties, though.”

Kala growled, “Hey, this is the good stuff. Those pumpkin panties the other week were five bucks at Target, I don’t care about those. This costs more than I made in a shift back when I worked retail, which is a tag I take seriously. Don’t go knifing up anything I paid good money for, Jay, or I’ll steal that kris and jam it hard enough into the wall that you’ll need help getting it out.”

C’mon, you’re a rock star, you can afford to replace it,” Jay laughed.

For a kid who hadn’t started out to-the-manor-born… “And thinking like that is how rock stars and athletes and lotto winners go broke,” Kala told him bluntly, crossing her arms and arching a brow. “I didn’t grow up rich, Jay. My parents don’t have a garage full of sports cars like Uncle Bruce. I might have some money now, enough to be comfortable, but I grew up knowing how to budget. It might not be as tight now, but I still mind it. Who knows when the bottom could drop out?”

You think I didn’t?” he asked. “K, I didn’t have a bed frame when I was a kid – just a mattress on the floor. And after Mom died, not even that. I went from sleeping on a stolen moving blanket to Wayne freakin’ Manor. And let’s not even talk about the kind of money I ran around on when I was training with the League of Shadows, because the al Ghuls could buy and sell Bruce with the money lost in their sofa cushions. Money’s not real, when you’ve been that poor and that rich.”

Sometimes she had to remind herself just how completely bizarre his childhood had been. All things considered, chalk it up to yet another way he was different than anyone else she’d known. “Well, when you’re middle class, money’s real and it’s something you don’t take for granted, no matter who your father is,” Kala said, shaking her head at him with a snort. “If it’s that important to you, I promise to shop the clearance rack a little more, you Neanderthal.”

He smirked at that. “Aww, but I like the fancy stuff, too. Honestly I like it all, ‘cause it’s on you. Hell, I liked you going commando for the masquerade ball.”

Just that mention was enough to bring that night back with sudden, unexpected intensity. One helluva gutsy move, on her part, showing up unexpected and in disguise. Jay’s reaction had been everything she’d wished for, and more. The warmth of the garage when they’d made it back to the Manor, his body pressed back against hers, the feel of his hands just a little rough over her skin as he reached back for her, the mask still hiding the one side of his face. The heat, the darkness in his voice before his lips met hers, her mind blanking a moment in sheer arousal. Do you have any idea? he’d nearly growled at her when he had stopped the bike, overwrought from her teasing, ready to eat her up right there. The memory was so strong, Kala had to close her eyes against her body’s reaction. Biting her lip, she barely managed to stifle a gasp. “Oh my fucking God, you’re still bringing that up?” Kala groaned, feeling the way her cheeks burned.

Jay laughed, his eyes wicked. “I’m still finding glitter in that bike. Face it, K, I like you in and out of damn near everything. Must mean I just like you .”

Kala opened her eyes to look at him in surprise, knowing the thoughts had to still linger in her eyes. Was it any wonder she couldn’t keep her head right around this man? Give him a perfect good out for admitting anything, and he just surprised you by giving you the exact answer you wanted. Fighting down the fire in her blood, she gave him a warm little smile. Damn this man for making her want him so much. “Well, I’m glad, because you don’t like a lot of people,” Kala chuckled. “And I like you, too, however I can get you. In suits or uniform or civvies.”

Oh, so you don’t like me naked?” Jay asked in mock-sorrowful tones.

Mentally, Kala very nearly snatched him to her and kissed him breathless, regardless of being in a moving vehicle at nearly over the speed-limit. Thank each and every deity out there for the level of control she was fighting to maintain and damn him also for being able to practically read her mind. When she could trust herself to speak, Kala could hear how husky her voice had gone in her wound-up state. “Keep talking like that and you’ll make us cause a wreck. Just keep it up, Red.”

I never have any problems keeping it up when you’re around,” he shot back, and she winced a bit, suddenly realizing that she’d unintentionally set him up for that. He just laughed, and added, “I won’t get in a wreck in the last five minutes it takes to get there.”

Again, that night, so like this one but not, ate at her. His voice gruff, amazed, shocked, and more than a little hungry, The hell’s gotten into you? Her own, purring in his ear a reply of You, deciding to raise the stakes, to let him know with no misunderstanding that the first time would not be a one-night-only. Not unless he called it off.

The interior of the car was getting just a little too warm, her blood up, her skin alive with the memories taunting her. “You will if I climb into your damn lap. Which we are very much in danger of me doing right now . Shut up , Jay,” Kala muttered, shooting him a heated look.

Your invulnerability protects me if we’re close enough, right?” Jay teased. “But you hafta buy me a new car if you make me wreck this one, Ms. Miser.”

That gave her pause of a moment, considering their earlier disagreement, and she sighed with discontent anticipation. The man had a point, no matter how much the rest of her argued the logical answer. “I’m trying to decide if it would be worth it,” Kala chuckled, and somehow kept her hands to herself until they made it back to his building.

Where Jay got out, and as she tried to negotiate the skirt out of the door, he came around to her side. “Can’t let you get your feet dirty,” he teased, and bent to pick her up.

Kala couldn’t help the flush that warmed her when he lifted her. She’d been told that Jay had carried her upstairs at the Manor like this, once, but she’d been too deeply asleep to notice. Now, cradled in his arms, she couldn’t help but meet his eyes and suddenly felt like her emotions were too plain. Desire was one thing, Jay didn’t mind being wanted and certainly knew he was at this point, but all the rest of it he was still leery of. One romantic date, for her birthday, wasn’t going to change that.

To cover the uneven mix of flutters in her chest and the ache growing below, Kala grinned saucily. “ And I get carried over the threshold, too? Mm, you really are turning up the charm, Mr. Todd.”

He paused, and she feared she’d gone too far, but in the next instant his laugh rumbled through both of their chests. “I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression, Princess,” Jay teased, and made as if to drop her. Kala squeaked, effectively breaking some of the tension as he left her trying to catch her balance, but Jay caught her around the hips and hoisted her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “There, is that caveman enough for you?”

The elevator rang with Kala’s disbelieving laugh as he stepped into it. “Not a bad view, although I prefer your face,” she shot back, smacking his butt.

Jay jostled her, dipping as if to drop her again. “Do that again, I’ll shred the dress. I bought it, I can wreck it.”

Kala squirmed in his arms, but not too much. She could’ve gotten loose if she really wanted to. “You will not , I like this dress, I will absolutely lay you out if you rip it!”

Then settle down, K. Focus on laying me instead of laying me out.” The elevator dinged, and he strode out, quickly unlocking the apartment and bypassing his security. Kala hung over his shoulder like a coat, smiling to herself. It looked like she was going to get exactly what she wanted tonight.

Jay carried her all the way in to the bed, and tossed her on it with just the right amount of roughness to put a gleam in her eyes. He smiled at her, those ice blue eyes gone hot with desire, and then stepped forward to catch her knees and tug her to him. Kala gasped, and let her own smile grow wicked. “I guess you don’t mind me getting dirty after all,” she purred.

That’s half the fun, right there,” Jay replied, and pinned her down delightfully.

Kala bit her lip, smirking up at him. It was the worst, not knowing if she should just drag him down to her or let him have his way. God, she wanted him so bad tonight, it ached. “Oh? So what’re you gonna do, Red? Just talk about it?”

I’d rather show you than tell you,” he laughed, shrugging off the jacket and tossing it carelessly at a chair. Kala saw it slide to the floor, and sat up just enough to grab his shirt, yanking it up so she could put her hands on his chest. The play of muscle under his skin was fascinating, dashing hurried kisses over his scars while her fingertips traced the lines and curves there. Nipping him lightly, Kala tried to rein herself in, fighting the need again when she glanced up at him.

Jay ran his hands up her thighs, under the dress, and the expression on his face as he touched her like that was almost as enticing as the feel of his knowing hands on her body. Kala drew in a breath sharply, moaning low in her throat, and he pulled back from her just enough to catch hold of her panties and pull them off with a flourish. “I might keep those,” Jay teased, tossing them across the room. “Something to get me through the days when you’re stuck on tour and can’t come see me.”

She tipped her head back, the mental image of Jay regarding a pair of panties like some sappy romance novel heroine staring at a locket with the photo of her lost love enough to cut through the lustful haze for a moment. “You’re ridiculous,” she managed, voice husky with want despite her hilarity.

Or maybe I’ll just sell ‘em on the internet,” Jay shot back. “KLK’s sexy panties, unwashed. Probably a couple grand, from your lonelier fans.”

Not even that could ruin her mood at the moment. “Annnnd that’s gross,” Kala said, still chuckling. “I suggest you pay more attention to the real thing right in front of you right now, Mr. Todd, or those panties are the only sure thing you’re getting tonight.”

He gripped her knees again, tugging her back toward him, and ran his thumb meditatively along the inside of one thigh. Kala felt the minute drag of the calluses he had from shooting so much, and shivered a little at the heat in his touch. “Oh, I can’t get enough of you, K,” he murmured, and bent down to kiss her. His weight on her body was glorious; Kala arched up to meet him and buried her hands in his hair as they kissed.

Jay’s hands were still up under her skirt, teasing higher in eager exploration, and Kala whispered against his mouth, “Don’t let that stop you from trying, Jay.” The way the dress bunched up around her hips, his hands on her, the need so needle-sharp and so intense, it all echoed so strongly that Kala moaned while the moments twined.

Never gonna stop,” he breathed now, his grip growing intent for a moment, and then he went back to caressing her. Just once, his touch ghosted across where she wanted it most, and Kala drew in a sharp breath … then Jay drew back, chuckling. “Don’t wanna make it too easy for you, Princess.”

The heat in her gaze was all too similar to the look she got right before her eyes sparked into flame. Jay wanted more, she could read that in his smile and the pattern of his breath and the eagerness of his hands on her – but he liked playing with her, too.

And she loved it when he did, but that didn’t mean he got to gloat about it. Couldn’t let him be too proud of himself, could she? Maybe it was time he remembered just who he was tempting, here. Again, one way or another, she was going to get what she wanted tonight.

With her speed and strength, Jay didn’t even know what was happening until Kala pinned him on his back, straddling his thighs. He looked up at her with surprise and delight, catching hold of her hips, and the feel of him against her was almost more than she could stand for an instant. But there would be plenty of time for that. “The last thing you’ve ever been is easy ,” she growled, and leaned down to kiss him again, her loose hair almost curtaining them. “Name me one part of this that was ever any kind of easy.”

Besides pissing you off?” Jay laughed against her mouth, and Kala nipped his jaw playfully.

Oh, pretty sure I can claim that, too, Mr. Hood,” she admitted with a flash of mocking smile, taking a moment to run her hands down his chest appreciatively, leaning down to nuzzle into the curve of his jaw. “Actually, I think it’s fair to say I took the Master’s class on that one. Good thing you changed your mind, huh?” Nipping the line of his neck lightly, teasingly, she made a purring sound of happiness when she heard Jay give a low groan, his hips rising against hers. Letting her hands follow the shape of him, Kala just let herself revel in the feel of his skin on hers. She had never been the kind of person who would make demands on one’s appearance when considering a relationship, but she had to admit that Jay had a definite advantage over all other men, going forward. She also wasn’t the kind to wax poetic about that sort of thing, either. That said, he was gorgeous, any fool could see that, battle scars and all. The scars only added to it, for her – other men might have his striking coloring, or his chiseled jaw, but only Jay was Jay, with all the proof of Red Hood’s courage and commitment written in his skin.

As she unbuttoned his pants, she asked him archly, “Trying to tell me you’re not a grumpy bastard, too?”

Can’t be that grumpy, or that much of a bastard, if you’re this eager to get me undressed,” Jay teased.

Maybe I just like difficult men,” Kala grinned back. Which, God, was that ever true in his case.

I was when you first came to town,” Jay replied, looking up at her with a sly smile curving his mouth. His hands slipped around to her rear, squeezing appreciatively, making Kala arch against him in response. He grinned at her for that. “Since I figured you out, the only time you’ve pissed me off was when you put yourself in danger.”

That put her libido on pause for a moment. This was unexpected; unexpected and a little hurtful, to be honest. Was he really going to bring up this now, after their last conversation on it? Kala stopped, looking at him seriously. Regardless, they were going to get this straight right now. “That’s what we do .”

Yeah, but I like you too much to let you do it without me right there beside you,” Jay told her. That soothed her a little; he wasn’t trying to handle her with kid gloves, or save her from herself. He just didn’t want her in trouble without him by her side to share the risk and the triumph.

What, you think I can’t handle myself?” Kala asked, the taunting note back in her voice, deciding to be mollified.

I know you can, but I like it better when you handle me,” Jay teased.

She was very tempted to just rip the pants off him – it’d serve him right after all his remarks about destroying her clothes – but while she contemplated her comeback, Jay seized her waist and the initiative, flipping them both back over. Kala laughed as he pinned her down. “Surprised you haven’t gotten bored of me yet,” she goaded.

Never happen,” Jay said offhandedly, and tickled her. Pinned under his weight, Kala squirmed and yelped, struggling but not putting in the effort to fling him off. Jay stopped just long enough to shove his pants down, and she grinned wickedly at him.

In a heartbeat, she was on top again, and the good dress pants were in two pieces. That made Jay yelp, and Kala smirked down at him. “With what you invest in guns, you can afford to buy another pair of pants. Oh, poor baby, one less grenade.” She mock-pouted at him, her eyes dancing with devilry.

Oh you sneaky little…” Jay growled at her, and grabbed her by the nape of her neck, yanking her down for a searing kiss. Kala arched into him at that, barely noticing the way he tugged the ties around her neck.

Kala started to sit up, working on a comeback for that, and Jay tugged her back down insistently, pulling down the top of the dress to bare her breast. She’d intended to tease him a little more, but with his mouth at her nipple, somehow the words just didn’t seem as important.

 

 

Jay rolled her underneath again, his teeth scraping her sensitive skin just enough to send a delightful chill down her spine, and she muttered something about getting him back for past sins. He chuckled, not caring about past or future, wholly involved in the present. Right now, all he wanted was her, and all she wanted was him. Kala whimpered, burying her hands in his hair, and Jay groaned. He drew back just enough to growl, “You have any idea how hot that is?”

Did you have any idea you were gonna fuck me in this dress when you bought it?” she whispered back, her voice low, wanton, and so fucking sexy.

His grin was surprisingly sunny, for all the heat building between them. “Not really, but hey, you’re always a good surprise. Even when glitter’s involved.”

You’ll never let that go, will you?” Kala laughed.

Nope,” Jay told her. He was down to boxers now, and shoved them off. That left them both still partly clothed, but with his shirt open and her dress both tugged down and rucked up, it was good enough. He didn’t want to look away from her face, the playful and hungry light in her eyes, even for the few seconds it took to get a condom from the drawer … but that wasn’t a mistake he intended to make, no matter whose birthday it was.

Kala stretched under him while he rolled it on, and then reached for his biceps as he fitted his body to hers. “Guess I can get over that,” Kala breathed, tightening her grip so she had the leverage to rise up and meet every thrust. “Since I won’t let you go, either.”

I’m not going anywhere, Princess,” Jay replied, and claimed her. Fuck, she always felt so damn good, and the way she always tipped her head back on a groan once he was inside her, closing her eyes, was too damn much. Conscious thought disappeared, Jay entirely wrapped up in sensation, moving with her a rhythm as intense as their dancing … if a little faster than waltz time.

Wrapping a leg around his hip, Kala turned and rolled him under her. Yeah, this was more like fighting than dancing, just as hot and heavy as their sparring sessions. He had zero issues with her taking control, but that didn’t mean he was gonna lie back and think of Gotham. Jay caught her hips, arching up into the rhythm Kala set.

Guess you got the birthday present you were expecting, after all,” he told her hoarsely, watching her lidded gaze with avid desire. “And I still wrapped it.”

Of course, you did,” she retorted, her voice husky. “After all of that, it’s … the gentlemanly thing to do, … Heathcliffe.”

Jay gave a throaty laugh; some gentleman he was, even if the Heathcliffe nod hit pretty close to home. Sure, he could fake it for an evening of dancing at the art museum. Being extra careful was more about the fact that neither of them were at all looking to have a kid at this point in their lives. Or ever , in his case. It could be worse – at least Kala was on the side of the angels – but no, that was the last thing either of them needed.

And that serious line of thought wasn’t one he could maintain with Kala swiveling her hips urgently. Jay chuckled, and told her, “Real gentlemanly, this is.”

She smiled at him, a slow simmering smile full of heat. “You believe in … ladies, first. I believe … that counts.” She squeezed tight around him, making him gasp with sensation, and then added in a low musing voice, “Not that I’m thinking … in the least about being very … ladylike the next while …”

Won’t hear any complaints from me,” Jay replied huskily, and that was the last intelligible conversation for a while – though things certainly weren’t quiet.

 

 

Afterward, once they had both caught their breath, Kala gave a little whimper of halfhearted discontent and nudged his nose gently. Jay looked down at her in confusion; what was the unhappy noise about? That earned him a pout, his thoroughly-rumpled girl glancing from him, down toward the disheveled dress around her waist, and back up again. It took him a moment, still foggy, then laughed. Yep, despite the pair of them utterly wrecking the bed, Kala was still determined to not muss the dress too badly.

Stop laughing and let me up, you heathen,” she grumbled, still pouting. “If I get it hung up fast enough, the wrinkles might not be too bad. I swear, Red, if you ripped it…”

I didn’t rip it,” he told her lazily. “Don’t worry, it’s not even stained. Yet another reason condoms are mankind’s greatest invention.”

She bopped him lightly in the shoulder for that. “ You…! Jay, you heathen. I can’t even get up and put it to rights.”

In response, Jay let his weight above her sag even more. Kala grumbled as he said, “Oh no, gravity’s increasing … is this one of your superpowers? Can’t … move…”

I could rocket-launch you across this room and right through the wall,” she growled, her brows furrowed in faux anger. “Get up , Jay! Smushing isn’t sexy!”

If anything, he leaned harder into her. “Smushing is fun, though. And you won’t throw me. You don’t wanna ruin the dress, you won’t risk ruining the rest of your present.” His eyes sparkled with amusement; only with Kala did he get silly .

She muttered a few choice words under her breath, some of them in Kryptonese, and he thought he caught the phrase that meant ‘obnoxious boy-child’. Proud that he’d picked it up so quickly, he was utterly unprepared when she straight-armed him up and off her, dumping him unceremoniously on the bed beside her. “ Asshole ,” Kala said grumpily, getting up and slipping the dress off to check it for wrinkles or rips.

That a nickname or a suggestion?” Jay asked, teasingly.

Her head whipped around, her eyes wide, and Kala looked utterly scandalized. “ Jay!

He just laughed, the sound rumbling in his chest. “I love the fact that we just fucked, a pretty epic lay actually, and I can still make you blush.”

You can make me blush over a lot of stuff,” she scolded, and he knew they were both thinking about all the hot-blooded things they whispered to one another in the heat of the moment. The kinds of things that made him look forward to round two, if they had time tonight.

The dress was fine, so Kala hung it up properly. She grabbed a pillow to throw at Jay, then went into the bathroom to take her makeup off and get cleaned up. Jay just tossed his shirt at the chair, and lay back, smoking and staring at the ceiling. It’d been a damn good gift, he decided, one both of them could enjoy.

He smirked a little. Neither Dick nor Tim would believe he’d be capable of such an old-fashioned romantic gesture, but Kala brought that out in him. And the whole dressing-up and behaving like civilized people was fun, for a while. Shit, she’d made playing tourists in Hong Kong fun, too. Looked like damn near anything he did with Kala would be enjoyable.

It was good to be more than a soldier. To remember that life was more than just the constant war in Gotham’s streets. If Jay devoted every waking second to fighting injustice, he’d just burn himself out, get killed again – or worse, turn into Bruce, who apparently believed Batman was his real self and Bruce was just a cover. Alfred and Selina and Babs called him back to reality, but Jay saw him more clearly now that he was a grown man, too. And Bruce … hell, for all he tried to do, Bruce was floundering, too.

Kala could remind Jay, without snark or claws, that he could be himself beyond just being Gotham’s vengeance on the wicked. She knew damn near everything about him, and she didn’t share that around, but she appreciated his fondness for Austen and understood his reluctance to deal with certain things. She’d back him up, no matter what, and then drag him off and make him take some time for himself. One hell of a woman, and he was a lucky man to have her.

She came back to bed, fresh-faced and smiling, and Jay stubbed out the cigarette to pull her close. Chuckling, Kala snuggled into his shoulder. “Happy birthday to me,” she murmured.

Yeah, sorry I forgot to get you a card,” Jay said flippantly, and she reached up to flick his nose. “Ow!”

Don’t be an ass. You got me the perfect present,” Kala purred.

Shoulda known you’d love clothes most of all,” Jay muttered. “Alfred made you a cake, by the way. It’s in the fridge.”

Thank him for me. And stop being thick-headed,” she scolded back sleepily. “The best gift was you.”

Well, a certain part of me, anyway,” Jay teased.

Kala looked up at him, her eyes stern. “Yeah, the sex is incredible with us and rest assured, since you want to hear me say it: yes, I’m more than overjoyed with your dick. Let’s just get that on the record, okay? Clearly I am. That said – I like you more. Spending time with you, just the two of us. There’s not as much time as I’d like, but I’m glad for what we have. There’s no one I’d rather fight beside or waltz with.”

He rumpled her hair, relenting. It was his nature to deflect and joke instead of talking about anything real , but Kala was the realest person he knew. Maybe giving her a little more reality from him couldn’t hurt tonight. “Same here. Of course, now I know that, next year I can just clear out the apartment and put on some old waltz records.”

She smiled slowly, clearly touched, those hazel eyes blinking a little even as she tried to hide it. “I’d go for that, too. Dancing barefoot in your living room sounds pretty good.”

It sounded pretty serious, to him, and Jay was still shy of anything that intense. Although he’d done just that, saying ‘next year’, and he leaned in to kiss the top of her head. Luckily she didn’t remark on that, just leaning into him more, and he held her as they both began to drift off. Round two had to wait until morning, that was all – she was just too worn out. Everything with the band was driving her half-crazy, he knew.

Jay was just thinking smugly of how to bring this up around Dick, and show off how much better a night of waltzing was than a bat she couldn’t actually take home, when his shoulder twinged in warning. He grumbled, and shifted to get more comfortable, by necessity shifting Kala as well.

She was fully asleep, or so it seemed, clinging closer as he adjusted her. And then she mumbled something, not the unintelligible sounds of sleep-talk, but words that still somehow seemed pulled from a dream. “I love you,” softly whispered against his shoulder, and Jay didn’t think she even knew she’d said it. In the next moment, her breathing was slow and even, and she nuzzled sleepily against him.

And on the edge of slumber, when all of his history couldn’t quite catch up to warn him off, Jay could only think the same of her. I love you, K, the words in his mind but never on his tongue. It was obvious, after so many months, after everything that had happened between them, and so natural that somehow those words he dreaded only soothed him to sleep.

Chapter Text

“I don’t know,” Carl groaned, flopping down on his back. It was cooler up here on the roof at night, and the Gotham skyline was almost inspiring. “I mean, I like running around as a guy, it’s cool and all, I definitely get more respect. But like, if this is who I’m meant to be, how come I’m not grossed out by the thought of being Caroline again?”

I’m so not the authority on this stuff,” Julio laughed, trying to pay attention to the stupid test prep website. Trigonometry was gonna be his downfall, he just knew it.

Yeah, but … if you could be a girl, would you?” Carl looked at him with mingled hope and embarrassment.

Julio sighed, closed his eyes, and tried to picture it. Not having to shave his face, that might be nice. Of course he’d have to shave his legs instead, and that was way more real estate to cover. Boobs, okay, who didn’t like looking at boobs? But the rest of it … nah. He shook his head. “Nope. I’m a guy, I’m happy as a guy, and I wouldn’t change it even if I could just by snapping my fingers.”

That’s it,” Carl said, excitedly hopping back up to sit closer. “If it was like an easy change to make, just snap your fingers, call up the trans fairy godmother and ask for some shoes? I’d do it for a night just to see what it’s really like. Being a guy, I mean.”

Julio had his own similar concerns, which he was trying not to think too hard about. If Carl wanted to go back to being Caroline, that made his life easier, because Carl was pretty cute, and really smart too. But if Carl was really Carl, then Julio had to confront some things he’d rather not deal with when he was already trying to keep a pack of teenagers out of trouble while Red Hood fed and housed them, and also get himself a GED and maybe a job at some point. Making something of his life counted for more than making out with anybody.

But Carl, even when they all called him Carl, was fun to hang out with.

I wouldn’t,” Julio finally said. “I think it’d feel too awkward.”

Carl sighed heavily. “See, that’s normal, I think. And I’m not normal.”

The word’s cis,” Julio interrupted, protective. “Don’t go thinking you’re a freak.”

Carl stuck his tongue out at that. “Anyway. But I’m not like, desperate to be a guy. Maybe I’m not either? Although man, that’d suck . Straight people and gay people both give trans people shit, but even some of the trans people trash-talk the non-binary ones.”

Julio rubbed his face, having learned an entire new vocabulary in the last months. Carl only talked to him about this stuff, because the rest took it as a joke or got weirded out. “Look, Carl, maybe you’re just fourteen and still figuring your shit out? Nobody ever said you have to have it all decided before you’re old enough to drive. You can be a guy, or a girl, or neither, and see how that fits.”

Carl rolled his eyes. “ Ugh . You sound a dad on TV. ‘It’s just a phase.’ Please try not to be lame just because you’re the oldest.”

There’s nothing wrong with having phases, either!” Julio said. “When I was thirteen, I was super into this one anime. I mean like trying to learn Japanese and shit. That lasted about a year – but there’s nothing wrong with it. I changed as I grew up. Some people do, some people don’t, but you know what? I met some really cool people online in the fan forums for the show. Some of them helped me understand that my parents fighting all the time and trying to make me take sides wasn’t cool. Who knows how messed up I’d be if I hadn’t found the guts to get out.”

Yeah, you’re pretty messed up as it is,” Carl said teasingly.

Julio mimed a punch at him. He could’ve fired a comeback, but Carl got real tense anytime they talked about families, so he just took it with a shrug. “Whatever. Point is, you don’t have to choose right now who you’re gonna be forever. Nobody here cares whether you’re Carl or Caroline.” He saw the younger boy’s face fall at that, and grabbed his hand. “ Hey . Nobody cares because you’re our friend either way, all right? I didn’t mean it like we don’t care about you.”

Carl ducked his head, and looked up shyly through his hair. “I kinda hoped there was one person here who cared whether I’m a guy or a girl,” he admitted softly.

Aw, shit, this was not the time for this. “Dude, you’re fourteen ,” Julio said. “That’s jailbait territory.”

Not unless it’s someone over nineteen,” Carl shot back, and immediately started blushing.

You looked it up?!” Julio said, and even Carl’s ears turned red.

Any reply Carl might’ve made got cut off, as on the street below them the front door banged open. “What the shit?” Carl yelped.

Julio leapt to his feet, spilling the laptop to the asphalt roof underfoot, just in time to hear the unmistakable rattle of gunfire from inside the house. He and Carl stared at each other, both thinking the same things; their friends were inside, the next roof was too far for them to jump anyway. “Shit,” Julio swore, and they both charged to the door, grabbing up their improvised weapons on the way.

 

 

Babs was monitoring many things, but the alarm that went off when a certain door in the Bowery was forced open quickly got all of her attention. Jay might’ve had independent alarms on the kids’ safehouse; so might Selina. Babs didn’t waste any time wondering, though, and sent an alert to Jay’s comm, and Dinah’s. Selina didn’t carry one, so Babs sent her a text. Those three were the closest, and the ones who’d met the kids … but there was one more person who had met them, and for whom distance didn’t matter too much.

At the same time, she pulled up her camera feeds to see what was happening. Babs swore under her breath; none of what she saw was good. She started speaking over the comms, getting the information out. “Looks like Two-Face’s men. I’ve got four vans in front of the safehouse, ten men inside, three are covering the door…”

 

 

Everything had been fine for Jay, other than a little freakout the other morning when he woke up and realized he’d almost said the l-word to K. It had been right on the edge of sleep, they were both post-coital, and she probably hadn’t meant to say it to him first. Right, he could just ignore the whole thing and move on, and he’d gotten his mind under control by the time she woke. She’d thought it was weird that he was awake first, and by the look in her eyes she didn’t remember saying it, either. It was okay, they were still themselves, and they hadn’t jinxed anything. He could breathe, Kala was still snarky and affectionate, and he could tell himself the way he curled around her was just because she was warm. It was cold in Gotham. Not like he was holding on to her for any other reason. Nothing serious that would require him to reevaluate his whole outlook on life and relationships. Of course not.

And now this, an alarm in the early evening followed by Babs on his comm, and the worst had happened, something that drove all his worries about Kala out of his head. Jay hauled ass, a constant drone of fear in the back of his head. Exactly what he’d been terrified about, ever since he first started giving a crap about these kids, had come true. Just like always, the Todd shitty luck had come back to kick him in the face again. As soon as he cared about something, it got blown up. The bad guys were rounding up the kids, and Jay couldn’t help thinking it was his fault somehow. He’d been careful about being seen near the place, Selina and Dinah had too, but Dent had to have figured out something to make him strike.

Babs had said shots fired and his gut roiled. If any of them were hurt … Dent’s boys would be going out in body bags, and fuck the rules, fuck the Bat. If he couldn’t save those kids, he could damn sure avenge them, at least.

Shit, he should’ve taken Bruce up on the offer to relocate them. Fuck! It was all his fault, trusting that things would be okay, the kids could look after themselves. Trying to do what he would’ve wanted as a kid, and wasn’t that a joke, he’d been damn near dead before he was old enough to vote.

He cleared the fifteen-foot gap between one roof and the next, and saw Selina drop down from the next building. “On site,” he barked into his comm, racing for the access door, and Selina met him there.

Careful, I’ve got no intel on the inside,” Babs said sharply, but Jay snatched at the door, only thinking that one of the kids might be hurt. Might be bleeding. Might be dead already, and it was his fault.

Locked, of course it was locked, and he cursed, reaching for his lockpicks. Selina grabbed his arm and jerked him to the side; Jay was about to snarl at her, when three shots slammed through the wood door. “Look,” she hissed, and he saw the laptop and Julio’s notebook, carelessly scattered across the roof. “They were up here. Harvey’s boys know about the roof door. They’re waiting on us.”

Fuck ‘em, we’ll find another way,” Jay snarled, chucking a can of knockout gas at the perforated door. It might drift in to get the gunman on the stairs, but even if it didn’t, it’d keep the guy from coming out while they went to the parapet and fixed their lines. He and Selina went over the side and through a window in the middle floor, the shattering glass loud. Not subtle at all, but he wasn’t in the mood for subtle.

The room they came in was empty, but their entrance was drawing attention – and on street level outside, he heard shouts and gunfire. “Canary’s keeping them distracted at the front,” Babs said in his ear.

Bad guys somewhere above, heavy footsteps rattling the ceiling, and more below trying to hold Canary off. That meant he and Selina were the meat in a sandwich, and he didn’t want to get his ass chewed off today. Had to make a move, fast, fast . Damn, he wished Kala was here, but this was the middle of the day, she was probably on a tour bus, couldn’t get away. Fuck .

No clue where the kids were. If it’d been Jay, he’d hold hostages on the lowest level, closest to the vans. So he headed down, full-frontal assault, charging the hall and headed for the sound of shots. Dent’s men upstairs were coming down, trying to catch him and Selina, but they were about to find out they’d caught a helluva lot more than they could handle. Jay bulldozed the first two before they could even aim their guns, and heard Selina’s whip crack as she dealt with another.

Too many men, and where were the kids? They hadn’t had time to move them to the vans yet. Somewhere above Jay heard a scream of pain and surprise, and turned toward it, wishing the rubber bullets in his gun were lead. He was still doing damage, but if he hadn’t been keeping to the code, he could’ve stopped these bastards for good…

They’d been headed down, and now they had men on the stairs above them. Too late to reverse, it was better to get Dinah in and cut off one side of the assault aimed at them. He’d rather be running up the stairs toward the kids, but that would be damn near suicidal. Attacking a higher-ground, better-armed position, that was stupid. And still part of Jay’s mind nagged at him.

Instead he and Selina barreled into two men headed up the stairs, and proved why the high ground was always a good advantage. They basically steamrolled the goons, Jay not even bothering with his gun, momentum and mass driving a flying elbow to the face that sent the first man crashing backwards down the stairs. Selina beside him used a leaping kick, her boots landing solidly in the thug’s chest, and she had to grab the banister to keep from riding the poor bastard down to the floor below.

No time for zip ties, Jay just kicked their weapons clattering down the next flight of steps, bulldozing his way down. The men on the door were now caught in the middle, and Selina’s whip flashed out, stinging the hand of the first to raise his gun. A fight like this was second nature to Jay, and he took the next one out with two rubber bullets to the chest, a hard enough impact that the man would at first believe he’d really been shot. They hurt like a bitch, too. Jay moved past him, at the door now, closing in with some fool who tried to pull a knife in consideration of the close quarters. Jay broke his wrist, head-butted him with the helmet on, and punched him in the gut to steal his breath and make him seriously reconsider getting up.

All of that was just training, Jay’s conscious mind barely even aware of the process of assessing threats and choosing targets. The only thought in his head was a vast, chilly gray fog of fear for the kids. If he had to look at Carl’s face masked with blood, if he had to hold pressure on a sucking chest wound for Julio, if he had to feel for Lenny’s pulse and not find it … something in him would break. These kids wouldn’t be here right now if not for Jay. He should’ve gone solo undercover, he should’ve bummed around with adults to get his info, he shouldn’t have let sentiment and his own history lead him to fall in with a pack of kids. Now all of them were risking their lives, and worse, they admired him, they looked to him for answers, and all he’d done was put them in the firing line.

The men downstairs fell, and Dinah was inside putting a finishing kick to one who looked too lively. Her eyes blazed, her jaw set, and she met Jay’s gaze with a steady implacable fury that only Babs could stand up to. “Let’s tag these shitheads so they can’t back-shoot us while we’re getting their friends.”

Done,” Jay said, whipping out his zip-ties. All three of them carried those, and in seconds the men were restrained.

Now, of course, they faced the problem upstairs. Jay squared himself, took a deep breath, and prayed to a god he no longer believed in that the kids were okay. He didn’t mind getting shot himself, just please no innocent blood on the floor. Not today. With Selina on one side and Dinah on the other, he turned back to the fight.

There were two men on the stairs, coming down, who’d hesitated when the sounds of battle slowed. Jay peaked around the corner of the hall and promptly got shot at. “They’re dug in,” he growled, ignoring the plaster chunks flying from shots into the wall. The two had taken the time to get themselves in a good position, hoping to protect their buddies above.

Babs spoke over the comm. “GCPD is on the way. Dent’s men don’t have any backup coming. I’m watching the perimeter and the roof.”

So let’s root them out,” Dinah replied, and tossed a hissing canister of gas around the corner. Jay grinned fiercely as the men started coughing. The smoke that billowed out was thick and eye-watering, but not as strong as tear gas.

His helmet was protection enough, and while the men were disoriented Jay tore into them. Selina’s mask shielded her eyes, but Dinah didn’t wear one – she had nasal filters, though, and guts enough to brazen through the smoke. One of the men recovered a little too quickly, bringing his gun to bear, and Jay thought of the kids upstairs, forcing the man’s arm downward so his shot went into the floor. Then he sucker-punched the prick, catching an assist from Dinah’s elbow to the guy’s temple. They got those two tagged, and headed up.

Someone on the top floor yelled a name, and the only answer was boots on the stairs. This was bad, worse than bad, charging up into gunfire, and Jay heard scrambling footsteps as the men tried to get in position. Shooting down the stairwell they’d all be exposed, he figured he had the most body armor and tried to get himself in front. Just had to make it up three flights…

A scream up above, one of the kids yelling, “Watch out!” and then a sharp smack like someone had hit one of them. Jay saw red, taking the stairs three at a time, ignoring the burn in his muscles. Bastards, he’d kill every fucking one of them for hurting his crew, even if he got shot he could take out two or three before he dropped.

One man reached the top of the stairwell, leaned over, and took aim. Jay fired up at him, running too fast to aim well, but he had to put his shots through the stairwell space, still not knowing where the kids were. A lucky shot peeled wood from the banister, and the gunman got spooked, pulling back for a few seconds.

Those seconds were all Jay needed. He, Selina, and Dinah came out into the big open room on the top floor, to see the kids herded to one side – okay, they were all okay, looking scared but no blood, thank you God I promise I’ll start believing in you again – with three guys holding guns on them. The first guy and two more were already aiming at Jay’s group, and all of three of them took evasive action. Selina somersaulted right, Dinah flipped right, and Jay trusted to body armor, throwing himself to one side and bringing his gun up. Once more he wished for lead in the chamber…

Before he could fire, the roof caved in with a thunderous roar.

Concrete and plaster dust choked the air, but Jay’s helmet kept the worst of it out. He flattened himself against the wall, dodging around to get to the kids, snapping over the comm, “What the fuck was that?”

His answer was a bellow full of rage, the voice that could project to the back of an amphitheater roaring out, “ You dare … !

And, out of nowhere, K was here and at DEFCON-5. Just in case he wasn’t following the action, Selina called out mockingly, “ That the fuck is a pissed-off Blur. Looks like your girl’s here for a Hail-Mary, Mr. Hood. You’ve always been a brave man.”

The dust was clearing, and all the men in the room were coughing in surprise, while Kala stood in the midst of them with that haughty posture that usually came with her outrage… with those eyes glowing red in fury. “Pilot lights,” Jay warned, and lunged for the nearest man.

The kids were okay, that was the main thing, and seeing them all on their feet, scared but not hurt, changed Jay’s approach. He’d intended to come in shooting, but with the kids safe, he could be more careful. He didn’t want any stray bullets headed their way.

And he did want information from these men. How they’d found this place, what the fuck they thought they were doing, all kinds of questions he hadn’t yet thought to ask. So needed them conscious and not concussed.

Kala fell into the fight without any of the same concerns, but at least she’d turned off the heat vision. The first man she targeted just gave a yelp that turned into a squeak, and Jay saw the guy hit the floor on his belly, already trussed up. She was really working the speed, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d snap someone’s neck. “ Blur! ” he called. “On me! Cool it down, I want ‘em awake when we’re done!”

She growled something under her breath in frustration, but came to his side, and slowed her fighting tempo to something he and the rest could keep up with. Jay heard Selina’s whip crack and a nose crunched by Dinah’s fist, men gasping in shocked pain, and smiled bitterly. Selina and Dinah took this personally, too. He waded into the group of men, who were still off-balance and demoralized by Kala’s dramatic entrance.

It was the most one-sided fight he’d been in for a while. These thugs had some training, but they were facing four very angry people who had more – and one of them had powers. Kala took Jay’s off-flank, snatching bullets from the air when one of the men got panicked enough to start shooting with his buddies in the line of fire, Dinah and Selina bore in on the shooters, and they had the room secure in a couple minutes.

Selina’s diamond-tipped claws slashed the last man’s arm, making him drop his gun, and she kicked it aside before kicking him in the gut to bring him down. Taking out a couple of zip ties, she looked over at Kala and Jay and said archly, “Remind me never to piss you off, Blur.”

Just don’t threaten anyone I care about, and we’re good,” Kala replied in dangerous tones. Only then did she look at the kids – and saw them all still staring at her. Julio looked shell-shocked, Carl’s eyes were huge, but no one seemed to be bleeding. They were clustered together, Julio out in front, and when she moved toward them, all of them flinched.

Kala froze, and Jay barked a laugh. “I told you guys who we were and what we did,” he reminded them. “Don’t go getting spooky now, you’ll hurt her feelings.”

From the look on her face, he had just hit a little close to home. “Shut it, Red,” Kala snapped, clearly a little hurt, but he’d dissolved the tension. At her reaction, the kids seemed to relax, remembering that they were all still the same people as before. That Blur was the same as she had been when she was talking hair-dye with Carl not so long ago. Only difference was, now they just had firsthand evidence to prove that everyone was as badass as they said they were.

We’re okay,” Julio said, his voice a little shaky, but it quickly firmed up. “There might still be guys downstairs, though.”

Downstairs is clear,” Dinah said. “Are you sure you’re all okay?”

Julio glanced at the other kids, and nodded. Jay cast a more practiced eye over them; Carl was right behind Julio, the rest trying to crowd into his shadow. None of them stood like they’d been hurt – they just looked scared half out of their heads, by the shock as much as the actual kidnapping attempt.

Selina saw their fear, too, and teased Kala lightly, “Next time we work together, you have to save some for the rest of us, okay?”

Kala gave a weak smile. “You got everything downstairs – I just took out a handful of them. And the roof.”

That still only counts as one,” Dinah interjected, and when they all looked at her, she just grinned back, doing her part to defuse the tension just as Selina had. “C’mon, Lord of the Rings? It’s a great line!”

Kala snorted at that, some of the woeful expression leaving her eyes. Jay relaxed a little, and then she turned right around to say, “I was almost too late to be of any use.”

You’re always useful. Don’t kick yourself, Blur, Gotham’ll do that for ya. And I know it’s hard for you to get away,” Jay said, shrugging. He turned to Selina then, adding, “Don’t count on it, Catwoman. Not if there are kids involved. You know who her mom is. Looks like the mama bear gene breeds true.”

That prompted a general look of interest from the kids, turning from her to him. “Holy shit, who’s her mom?” Lenny muttered.

It was enough to get a snort of amusement from Kala, who glanced back at the other two women. “Not a cape, but they’re all scared of her,” Jay laughed.

The jocularity came to an end when Babs spoke in their comms. “Someone said a missile hit the roof? Hood, did you bring heavy ordnance?”

Something like that,” Kala said, looking chagrined. “I did say incoming…”

Heavy ordnance brought herself,” Jay said, as Babs muttered that it was particularly apt this time. He caught Kala’s shoulder for a moment, locking gazes with her. “You did fine, Blur. Don’t worry about it. We’re all good, they’re all good, the bad guys are all alive. That’s a win anywhere, and it’s damn near a miracle in Gotham.”

By then the kids had broken out of their fearful little cluster, and Carl climbed on top of a chunk of the roof, staring up at the sky through a new hole. “How the fuck did you do that?” he said wonderingly.

Be going about twice the speed of sound when she hit it, Jay thought. But all Kala said aloud, with a nonchalant shrug, was, “This guy made me some really fancy boots…”

Trust a girl to make it about the shoes,” Jay scoffed, and Kala swatted his arm again.

We’ve got to move,” Dinah said, and all the kids turned to her with surprise. All of them were really seeing her in uniform for the first time, and realizing that Dinah who brought them pizza also happened to be Black Canary. Jay heard Oracle in his ear then, confirming that the police were on their way. Dinah just said patiently, “Guys, there’s a big hole in the roof, and all that shooting got the cops’ attention. These guys need to go to jail, too. We have to get you out of here.”

Jay cursed, leading them up the broken concrete to the roof. “Look, B said he had options. I wasn’t gonna take him up on it, but maybe we have to.”

Who the hell is B?” Lenny said, sounding half hysterical. He’d always been the most easily spooked of the group.

Batman,” Jay said. All of the kids blinked, looking surprised. Jay supposed this was a lot to dump on them all at once. Hell, only in the last fifteen years or so had people learned that Batman was more than just an urban legend. “I know, I know. I didn’t tell him about you guys, but he’s fuckin’ Batman. He finds stuff out. He’s being remarkably hands-off and cool about it, for him.”

And it triggered exactly the response Jay had been expecting. “I’m not goin’ to foster care again,” Julio said staunchly, echoed by the rest.

It was Kala that spoke up then, shaking her head. “No, you’re not. Any of you. That was never part of the plan.” They’d had a few conversations about this; they both had known that there would have to be another solution. They just didn’t know it would have to be implemented this soon.

Let’s get them out of here first, then we can decide where to go,” Selina said. “Over the roofs is fastest.”

That’s like twenty feet!” Carl squeaked, eyes going wide.

Fifteen, maybe, and we’ll catch you,” Jay said. He thought he could hear sirens already. Which reminded him, he had business to take care of that wasn’t babysitting.

Dinah eyed the gap, then turned to Jay. “You and me, first. Blur, can you jump them across, and then we’ll go over a few buildings and down?”

Not a problem,” Kala said, although she glanced back at Jay. The kids knew she had powers at this point, but other than that with the ceiling, she’d never really shown them off. “If you’re sure.”

Jay shrugged. “Might as well.”

Hold up,” Julio cut in. “I didn’t sign up for this!”

It’ll be fine,” Jay said, catching his eyes. “You didn’t sign up to get hauled off by Two-Face, either. Speaking of which, I need a few minutes alone with those guys before GCPD gets here.”

He could see Kala give him a measured glance at that, but she stayed silent. “Fine, we’ve got the kids,” Dinah said. “C’mon, you guys, it could be worse. We could just zip-line it. Blur’s a meta, she won’t drop you.”

Julio looked at Kala dubiously, and she sighed, glancing skyward. “Fine, I’ll give you guys proof, if it makes you feel better.” Jay didn’t know what she had planned until she caught him around the waist and picked him up off the ground. He yelped, of course, and Selina snickered at him. “I told you guys, I’m a lot more than just fast ,” Kala explained patiently. “C’mon, we gotta hurry.”

Put me the fuck down right now,” Jay snapped.

She did, not quite hiding her smile, and Julio laughed. “And you’re dating her.”

Jay bared his teeth – which none of them could see, he’d worn the helmet for this, but it was just habit. “Yeah, I am. I have a thing for women who can shot-put me into orbit. Just get it done, okay? I’ll catch you up.” And with that, he headed back inside.

Dent’s goons were pretty much helpless at this point, and there were no witnesses. Just the way he liked it. All the old impulses were still there, whispering up from the back of his brain. Kill them all, they’re scum that breathes, no, worse than scum, they’re vermin. Parasites. Put them down, clean this place up your way, you know the only way to get rid of Gotham’s filth is to wash the city in blood. Kala won’t hate you for it.

She might even help.

That was the Pit talking, the urge to soak his hands in blood all the way up to his elbows and call it a good start. He had a number of ways of holding that darkness down, but today the simplest one was on the roof fretting because she’d spooked the kids by rolling out with a small fraction of her true power. Yeah, Kala might help him, but he couldn’t let her get this filthy. Most stains slipped right off her, the way well-oiled steel didn’t rust, but blood … blood was hard to wash out.

No killing. Not today. But they didn’t have to know that. Jay strolled over slowly, taking out his kris. “Aw, come on,” one of the men whined. “We weren’t gonna hurt ‘em!”

See, the difference between me and every other dirtbag in this town is, I take care of my crews,” Jay said. “You remember what happened to the assholes who tried to send me a message by kidnapping one of the dealers I protected, back in the day? Man, that ruined pork barbecue for some people. Not me, I had carnitas that night. Cops are on their way, maybe I should get fire rescue down here, too.”

All of them in the room started struggling, testing their bonds, but every cape in Gotham knew how to put on zip-ties so that no one could escape. At least, no one who wasn’t double-jointed or had super-strength. Jay picked the guy who’d talked, and went to one knee beside him, letting the light play over the knife. “Or maybe I should just send a message to Dent. There’s enough of you, I could carve one word per face, make him puzzle it out. Hmm, ‘keep off my turf’ is too short. ‘Keep off my turf or I’ll have your balls for a paperweight’ is too damn long. What do you think? Maybe just ‘fuck off’ on each one?”

The guy was glancing between the knife and Jay’s impassive helmet. “You’re a Bat now. Bats don’t do that shit.”

I’m not a Bat,” Jay said, letting his smile show in his tone. “No symbol on my shirt, boys. I do what needs to be done, and these kids were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but they did me a favor anyway. So anyone who looks sideways at ‘em, I gotta make a point, here. Y’know?”

Batman wouldn’t like it,” one of the others said, sneering.

Jay just chuckled. “The Bat isn’t here right now. Boo hoo, I carve up some lowlifes and get left off his Christmas list, such a fuckin’ tragedy. He won’t do shit as long as you live – and I can make sure you live. A lot longer than you’d like to.”

What do you want?” the guy beside him asked hoarsely, still fixated on the knife.

Jay drove it into the floorboards half an inch from his nose. “I wanna know why you’re here, how you even found out about these kids, and what you were gonna do with them. And I want to know in the next three minutes before GCPD gets here to stop the fun, because then I hafta take you with me, and things could get messy .”

His eyes frantic, the man started babbling.

 

 

On the roof, the kids were still cringing away from the edge. They were running out of time; no more time to argue about it. Making up her mind, Kala looked at Julio, the oldest and biggest, and figured he could be mad at her later.

At her speed, he didn’t even know what was happening until they were both standing on the other roof. “Ay cabr ón!” he exclaimed.

Yep, exactly what she’d expected, not that she could blame him. “Sé valiente,” Kala admonished with a laugh, and darted back across.

She grabbed Carl next, even as Dinah was leaping the gap to keep an eye on Julio, and Carl managed not to scream, holding on as tight as he could, though his eyes were huge. She got all seven of them over as sirens sounded in the distance, and was quick enough about it that only Lenny managed to really freak out, wrapping both arms around her neck and closing his eyes. “Don’t drop me, I’m afraid of heights, just don’t drop me,” he whimpered as she moved to jump.

Three seconds later, touching down on the opposite roof, Kala patted the back of his head. Poor kid; she couldn’t even fathom being that scared of a distance that small, anymore. “It’s already over, Lenny, it’s okay.”

Just glancing over, it was obviously someone else wasn’t quite thrilled with her at the moment. Julio glowered at her, more than a little disgruntled about things. “That was not cool, dude.”

Kala sighed, still holding Lenny like a spider monkey; she had known this was coming. Julio, like her brother, was all about control. But if Julio went, the others would be less afraid to follow. There hadn’t been another choice. “I’m sorry, but we had to get out of there. I promise not to do it again unless I have to, all right? Swear.”

Selina leaped across, laughing. “Complain later, let’s move. We’re a big obvious target up here.”

Dinah led the way, and Kala put Lenny down gently. She fell back to rearguard, not her normal position in maneuvers, but it worked today. The cops would likely come up behind them. She also had to listen for her band; they’d just been checking into the hotel when Babs put out the call, and Kala had been frantic to get into the room and out of sight. She even considered making a run for the lobby bathroom, but it was too late. Her hands were full, the elevator was open, Derek and the boys were looking right at her. Even as she’d strained her hearing toward Gotham, Babs had whispered over the line that Jay, Selina, and Dinah were on it, only minutes away, she wasn’t required – the call was informational.

Still, Kala had hustled to her room, locked the door, and put her comm in for an update. Once Babs told her it was the kids , she changed into her uniform so fast that her clothes ended up flung all over the room, and Kala flew across the country at record speed, unaware that she’d actually split the line of a storm over Nebraska and seriously confused some meteorologists. Twenty-five hundred miles in about six minutes, she was too fast to even show up on most radar. Not only was this the kids, she couldn’t stand the thought of them in danger, this was Jay . Whose heart was racing, she could hear it in California, and if one of them got hurt, someone had to be there to grab Jay by the scruff and stop him from burning down everything he’d built since he’d come back to Gotham.

Someone had to remind him to at least wait for a chance with no witnesses.

It had all worked out, and Jay was still back there, getting information. She tuned in to hear one of the bad guys talking frantically, and couldn’t hold back a cold grin. Trust her Hood to get what he wanted quickly, and without much bloodshed. Actually slicing and dicing the guys would take longer than scaring the living hell out of them. She needed to keep an ear out for him, knowing how furious he got when the kids were threatened. He cared about all of them, no matter how he tried to deny it. Saving them was trying to save himself from long ago; Jay would’ve been one of them, if he’d been their age. He was trying to save them from the same pitfalls he’d tripped right into.

So Kala split her attention three ways: her immediate surroundings, Jay and the goons, and her hotel room, in case one of the boys knocked.

At least the buildings here abutted each other, so there was no gap to leap – but to get to the third roof, they had to drop down eight feet. Dinah went first, tucking and rolling, and Selina followed her, sticking the landing. “Let’s go,” Dinah called up to the kids. “Jump and we’ll catch you, or let Blur carry you down.”

Julio glanced over his shoulder at Kala, swore, and jumped. That brought a round of amused snorts, despite the seriousness of the situation. Dinah and Selina both helped break his fall, then Carl jumped down. All of them made the jump in short order, Kala bringing up the rear and holding onto Lenny. “This one’s abandoned, we can go down the stairs,” Dinah said, turning toward the roof door. It was secured with a large padlock and chain.

Which, even as Selina moved forward to deal with it, Carl had trotted up and picked the lock. Dinah gave a short laugh at that. “Nice. I couldn’t have done it that quick. But then, I didn’t have Catwoman giving me pointers.”

Carl looked embarrassed for a moment, but Selina ruffled his hair. “I didn’t have to tutor him. Lock picking is a useful skill in the East End, Canary.”

I don’t do it unless I have to,” Carl said, shuffling his feet.

Me, I do it for fun. But that was smooth,” Selina reassured him as the rest headed through the door and down, Kala and Dinah taking point. “Nothing to be ashamed of, either. You heard Canary say she couldn’t do it as fast – she’s got rogue skills too.”

As many times as I’ve had to get out of handcuffs since I started working for Oracle, I’d damn well better,” Dinah called back over her shoulder.

I don’t wanna know about your love life,” Selina shot back, and Dinah rolled her eyes as the kids all snickered.

You’re the expert in that field, I’m too vanilla,” Dinah replied easily. “Blur, did you ever learn to pick locks?”

No, I keep putting it off,” Kala admitted with a grin. They both knew her heat vision would take care of most locks.

Dude, she just kicked in a roof, she doesn’t need lock picks,” Julio scoffed, causing another round of chuckles.

At least the kids were taking this well. Their lives had been turned upside-down, again, they’d been in real danger with guns aimed at them, their benefactors turned out to be somewhat scary vigilantes. Despite that, they were following directions and cracking jokes. It might just turn out okay.

As they all filed down, Dinah said to Kala, “Some fancy moves back there, Blur. You and Hood really do work well together.”

We’d better, he trained me,” she said, and speaking of him, Kala focused her hearing to tune in on him, discovering he was currently leaving the kids’ building. She tapped her comm, and said, “Oracle, how far away is GCPD? And Hood, you need evac?”

Two minutes, and Hood’s clear,” Babs replied.

Keep going, Blur, I’ll meet up with you,” Jay said, much to her relief. He had kept his control and she had the feeling that Harvey Dent was going to regret this today in the very near future.

Where are we going?” Carl asked.

And when are we gonna get our stuff?” Lenny added.

I’ll get your things later,” Selina said. “It’s all gonna end up in a GCPD evidence locker. But we need shelter for the night, at least. Hey, Hood owns his whole building, right?”

Kala winced. His need for space wouldn’t allow that, and he’d have histrionics anyway. “No way he can manage that. Hood knows full well that building’s a target for anyone who wants him dead, and he’s got plenty of enemies. He’d have conniptions putting civilians there.”

Oracle, you got any ideas?” Dinah said.

Her voice over the comm was amused despite the digitizer. “Secure housing for seven kids, in a building not currently occupied, located within walking distance of your current location, and preferably with power and water, plus someplace I can keep a close eye on them? Ask me something difficult, Songbird. I’m already on it.”

Well excuse me for being polite,” Dinah laughed. “Someone’s letting that ‘god-tier hacker’ remark go to her head.”

Considering the source, I take pride in it,” Babs said, reading off an address only a few blocks away. It would do for tonight; Dinah repeated it aloud for Selina and the kids.

They’d gotten to the first floor, and Selina peeked out. As the sun went down, there were few people on the street; those with honest jobs were either working, or already home. The dealers and gang members and pimps weren’t out yet. Three vigilantes and seven kids headed out, moving briskly, still hearing the sirens as the police rolled up to their former flophouse. Kala listened in, hoping Jay had extricated himself before the cops arrived. Most of the police force was content to let the Bats work, but Red Hood wasn’t quite a Bat in their eyes. He’d spilled too much blood on his first run through town.

He had left that building and was closing in on their position, so she turned her attention back to the street. Selina had sidled up to the door of the address Babs had given them. It looked like an office, though long shuttered, the windows covered in plywood. Dinah glanced at the front and shrugged. “Well, it’s not the Ritz.”

Selina had picked the lock in seconds, and opened the door on a surprising puff of warm air. “Hey, the heat’s still on,” she said, pleasantly surprised.

If it’s got heat, it might as well be the Ritz, for us,” Julio said. “I slept under a bridge once.”

I slept in the back of a pickup,” Carl piped up, as all the kids filed in. Kala waited by the door, watching for Jay, and heard the rest listing off the weirdest places they’d slept.

Jay jogged up to her, grinning. There wasn’t even any blood on his gloves this time, which spoke to a great deal of restraint. “Turns out fuckin’ Dent didn’t know they were mine. Dumbass. He just wanted the building, and he needs recruits now that a bunch of his people are in prison. Course, since I didn’t kill those guys, now they know the kids are with us.”

Well, that settles that. We’ve got to move them again, first chance we get. This is only good for tonight,” Kala said worriedly, and closed and locked the door behind him.

The main lobby area was dusty, but there was a dividing wall and hallway that lead off to a series of offices, enough of them to give each kid privacy. Best of all, Kala didn’t smell mold or rats – the place was clean and warm.

Dinah was shrugging. “Not the worst accommodations. Weirdest place I ever slept was locked up in a cellar. Or a jail cell. Oracle’s put me in some hairy situations.”

Knowing some of the tales the Birds had told her during training, Kala remembered that she certainly had. Her stories weren’t nearly as suspenseful, but it helped distract the kids. Kala decided to chip in with, “I slept in the hot tub at this one hotel, back in the day. Literally all night. We got a free upgrade, and I decided to take advantage. None of my friends bothered to wake me up.” By ‘friends’ she meant the band, who’d gotten a tongue-lashing for letting her get all pruney by soaking overnight, but she wasn’t going to let any hints about her day job slip in front of the civilians.

Selina examined her claws, and grinned. “I’ve slept in the actual Hôtel Ritz, in Paris. The Suite Impériale, to be precise. Gold faucets and light switches, ceilings eighteen feet high, one of those fancy beds with the half-canopy, the works.”

Kala paused only a second before laughing out loud, shaking her head. “Somehow I’m not a bit surprised.”

And that’s weird?” Dinah asked. “Sounds like a damn good deal to me.”

Considering I spent the night before sleeping in my car, yeah,” Selina laughed. “Serious mental whiplash.”

Jay just scoffed at them all. Kala prepared herself for a tale that would put all of theirs to shame, but got the opposite of what she had assumed. “I slept on a bunch of roofs in this town. And I think I’ve been in that suite, too, Catwoman. Gold faucets, right? Shaped like swans?”

Selina laughed. “Yes! I don’t even wanna know how you ended up there.”

The Ritz. In Paris. Why was she suddenly not surprised at all? Kala rolled her eyes and hissed at Jay; she knew how he’d ended up there. And didn’t want to think about that too long. “You weren’t paying for the room, I know that.” Raising her eyebrows, she shot him a queenly glare.

To be fair, neither was I,” Selina pointed out. “I made that one a two-for. I got paid to be there, kept the room as a perk, and used it to back up my story posing as a jewel-buyer the next day.” She gave them a little wink at that.

Sounds about right,” Kala laughed.

Yeah, well, the weirdest place I ever slept was in these guys’ flophouse, pretending to be Tommy,” Jay said with a shrug. “And even that was a lot more comfortable than the suite in Paris. I’d count the Ritz, except I was so freaked out thinking I’d break something, I never actually fell asleep.”

Julio had quickly checked out the rooms, and found them satisfactory. “Okay, so, somebody bring us up to speed? Who knows we work for you now?”

Two-Face,” Jay replied, and Kala saw how he changed gears to treat the boy the same way he would’ve treated her, or Dick, or anyone else he had to talk logistics with. He spoke to the kids as equals, and she knew they had to appreciate that. “Which is not good. Part of the reason I picked your group to throw in with was ‘cause you’re not involved with all the gang bullshit. The minute you get marked as being someone’s crew, you’ve got a target on your back for everyone else. Especially now, with Joker in the hospital and Black Mask in jail. Everyone else is trying to carve up this town.”

Julio snorted. “I don’t get that, man. Every time one of ‘em goes to Arkham or Blackgate, all the others scramble to grab up what they can. It never lasts more than a year before someone gets out, someone else gets put away, or someone new shows up, and shakes the whole mess up again. Why do they even bother ?”

Money, power, and territory,” Selina said, hopping up on a desk.

Dude, they’re fighting over the Bowery,” Julio replied. “And Crown Point and the Narrows. The slums. It’s not like they’re trying to get Bristol!”

This isn’t Monopoly,” Dinah said, as everyone else tried not to cough.

Selina smirked at Jay, and Kala didn’t need any extra powers to read the thought that passed between them. There’s a reason it’s not Bristol. That’s where Batman lives . Selina just said aloud, “Still, it’s money, power, and territory. There’s plenty of money in the East End, if you know where to look. It’s just not classic cars and antique silver like in Bristol. All the pawn shops, the laundromats, the little diners – they make good money. You have any idea how much profit a laundromat clears? Most people in the Bowery can’t afford a washer and dryer, and the apartments don’t have hookups for them anyway.”

Okay,” Julio said, but Selina cut him off.

Time for a quick lesson in broke economics,” she said, swinging her feet. “In terms of making money, this is the richest place in town. It literally costs money to be poor. You wanna wash clothes, and your building doesn’t have machines in the basement? You go to the laundromat. You pay for the machines, you pay for detergent if you don’t have your own, and worst of all, you have to sit there for an hour or two while your stuff gets done. That’s time you can’t spend working, or cleaning, or cooking, or maybe doing something you actually enjoy. You can’t afford to buy furniture so you either scrounge, or you go to some rental place where you pay a little bit every week – and end up paying three times what anything should cost. Then you go grocery shopping, but you don’t have a car, so you can only get what you can bring on the bus or in a cab. Or maybe on the back of a bike. So you’re shopping every couple days, or you’re just saying ‘fuck it’ and dining out for every meal. Then something breaks, or someone gets sick, or you need new clothes for a job interview, so you go to a pawnshop and get less than half what your stuff’s worth, and you’ll pay through the nose to get it back. Or you go to a payday loan place and they practically skin you with fees, but you can’t go to a bank ‘cause your credit’s shot. Meanwhile, where does the money go? The money for your rent, the money from the pawn shops and the loan places and the laundromats and the diners and the rental stores, you know where it goes?”

Julio shook his head, his eyes wide, and all the other kids listened raptly. Kala herself stopped to listen, wanting to hear the rest. Selina showed her teeth in what was decidedly not a smile. “Some rich bastard’s pockets up in Bristol , most likely. Not back here, to people who need it. All those shops are either paying protection to the gangs, or they’re straight-up run by them. You ever see a furniture store that never moves inventory? It’s money laundering for the mob. They keep a fake record of sales and provide invoices for other companies that never deliver stock. The buildings are almost all owned by landlords on the good side of town, or by gangsters, and either way they only care about how much money they can make. To guys like Harv – Two-Face – you’re just another sheep to be fleeced or milked or knocked in the head and served with mint sauce.

But they’re gonna take everything they can, and the rich side of town, people have investments and insurance and really good security systems. It’s hard for the bad guys to get things done up there, they just don’t have as much ready cash laying around. Down here? They can do business, and even if they do something like Black Mask this summer and kill off damn near half the homeless population, there’s always gonna be more poor bastards to feed on. There’s always some hard-luck story of comfortably middle class people losing it all in the stock market, or layoffs in some company that hit hard times. The CEO and the Board of Executives always cut themselves a big severance, and everyone else just gets a pat on the back and a kick in the ass.”

Silence, all of them a little stunned by her vehemence, and Selina looked around. Dinah finally said, in careful tones, “Not that I disagree, but I wasn’t expecting the ‘eat the rich’ speech from you , Catwoman.”

Yeah, well, one or two of ‘em are okay,” Selina admitted. “Also I’m richer than God right now, but that could change any day. Most of my assets aren’t exactly legal, and I could lose it all to the IRS or the GCPD. Or any of the other alphabet agencies. I’ve been on both sides of it, you know? I’ve been flat broke, gotten evicted and had my stuff thrown in the street, stood in the line at the food bank, and watched people going to work look down their noses and mutter about lazy good-for-nothing street scum. And I’ve stacked up all the money coming in for the Calabrese family, too, poured a thousand-dollar bottle of wine and didn’t even drink all of it. Difference is, I did something with the money when I got some. Like certain billionaires you and I both know, Canary.”

Dinah smiled. “I was thinking a bit more about your taste for the finer things in life.”

Selina rolled her eyes. “Every girl should get to wear a dress worth more than her first car once in a while, Canary.”

Okay, enough broke-nomics,” Jay said, but he grinned at Selina. “The point is, the Bowery’s where these assholes hunt, and now you’re all targets. So we need to get you guys situated somewhere safe. Batman offered to set you up – he’s got connections. That means real apartments this time. Probably also means you have to start cracking down on the schoolbooks, but hell. There’s worse things.”

How long have you been out of school?” Carl said plaintively.

Longer than it looks,” Jay replied. “And I was a straight-A student while I was in. I guess the first real question is, do you guys have to stay together? Or would you be okay splitting into groups?”

Lenny shrugged. “Man, we’re not related or anything. We can keep in touch over the internet. This’s just the best place we had, ‘cause of Julio. And now you. As long as I’m fed and have clothes to wear and can work on maybe getting set up with a job soon, I don’t care.”

Most of the rest had similarly casual attitudes, but Kala saw the way Julio looked at them. That one had all the marks of leadership; he took responsibility for these kids who’d all been thrown together by chance. At last, he turned to Carl. “You stay with me, no matter what,” Julio said. And as Carl tried not to grin, he continued, “You’re the littlest, someone’s gotta look out for you.”

Oh bullshit on that,” Carl said, but he was blushing just a little.

Kala caught Jay’s eye, smirking, and he looked away. Of course, what Julio said next really got their attention. “Carl wants to go to Metropolis,” he declared. “You got any friends over there wanna adopt some street rats?”

Jay coughed. “Yeah, um, I might know somebody in Metropolis. Blur, think you can wrangle a Super-invite from clone-boy?”

For half a second, she’d thought he was going to out her as a Kryptonian. Instead, Jay trolled her. It was only fair to return the favor. “You mean the guy Capespotting thinks I’m cheating on with you? Sure, I’ll ask Superboy. We should be able to figure something out.”

That made him laugh, and Dinah cut them an amused glance. “I know someone with nationwide connections. Think about what kinds of programs you want to be in – college, vocational school, that kind of thing – and we’ll start making plans.”

Carl, meanwhile, had fixed Kala with a shrewd stare. “How in the heck do you go from dating a Super to this guy? I’d get whiplash!”

Kala could feel Jay watching her, waiting to see how she’d wriggle out of this one. “I was never really dating Superboy,” she admitted. “He’s a good friend, the tabloids went nuts, so I played it up for effect. And Hood’s a pretty good guy – not to mention, have you heard me admit to dating him? He’s the one who keeps saying it.” She looked over at Jay archly, smirking.

Selina laughed at the pair of them, while Jay just grinned. “Hey, Blur, you want ‘em to learn forensics? They can start by matching the bite mark on my shoulder to your teeth.”

Kala didn’t know what counter-troll to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that . She swatted at him, flushing in disbelief. “ Red! Knock it off!” Regardless of their background, these were still just kids , and didn’t need to know specifics.

You know that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dating,” Selina put in archly.

Oh yeah?” Jay shot back, fending off Kala’s repeated smacks on the arm. “So are you dating Batman, or just bangin’ him?”

He takes me on dates, so we’re dating,” Selina replied. “Are you two dating? Or just beating up bad guys together and working off the tension afterward?”

We’ve been on at least three official dates,” Jay said proudly. “That didn’t involve beating anyone up. So there.”

Meanwhile Julio was frowning. “Not that I wanna be all in your business, but how the hell does Batman go on a date?”

Dinah was the one who chuckled at him. “You guys forget, we have lives out of costume, too. It helps a relationship to know who’s under the mask – I’d know. I spent a year talking to mine over a headset before I ever got a face-to-face.”

Yes, but Bats are paranoid,” Selina said blithely. “If not for a really good line that outed us, he might not have ever let me in. Batman’s always had trouble with that. All his kids are the same, pretty much.”

Jay narrowed his eyes, and luckily Dinah stepped in. “All right, so Julio and Carl, we’re looking at Metropolis. What about the rest of you? Lenny, what do you want to do?”

You sound like a guidance counselor,” Lenny complained.

Well shit, we can pick something for you,” Jay said. “We’re just trying to let you have some kind of choice in all this, since I rolled into your lives and fucked ‘em all up.”

You didn’t fuck up our lives, man,” Julio said. “You know how much more stuff we can get to do when we’re not spending every day just trying to find enough to eat? Nah, I’ll take it, even if it does come with crazy shit like running across rooftops.”

Kala saw the look in Jay’s eyes despite the helmet, the warm quiet satisfaction it gave him to be looked up to, to be relied upon, and her heart swelled for him.

Of course, that was the moment that her hearing registered a knock on the opposite coast. She remembered to touch her ear, as if the news came in via comm instead of super-hearing. “Shit! Guys, I have to go. Something else just came up.”

Jay nodded, and she looked at him apologetically. He just grinned. “Sure, sure, you come sweeping in to kick ass, and run away when people talk about relationships and shit. C’mon, Blur, that’s the guy’s line.”

Guess that just means she wears the pants in your relationship,” Selina quipped, smirking at them both.

Kala scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Boy, is it ever the guy’s line. Especially in this town. See you around – and yes, I’ll remember to talk to Superboy. Hood, keep me updated!”

With that she was off, hearing Morgan knock a little louder and her phone buzzing inside the room as he texted her. Meanwhile behind her, Jay chuckled, “As if I’d miss an excuse to call.”

Just a few more weeks, and she’d be on holiday break. Just a little more time until her ‘real’ life relaxed its stranglehold, and she could come to Gotham as much as she wanted. Hell, Jay probably didn’t even know yet that Alfred had invited her for Christmas in the birthday card Bruce had signed, but Alfred had clearly purchased…

Chapter Text

Jay deserved some down time, and damned if he wasn’t going to chill out and fucking take it already. He’d spent the last two days busting his ass to get seven teenage boys moved into safer housing in Gotham and Metropolis, and on the whole, he preferred being shot at. That was less stressful. At least last night he’d gotten in a ‘normal’ patrol, very low-key, the only real excitement being the carjacking he and K had stopped. Easy stuff to settle his mind so he could sleep, and now today he was finally free to do nothing serious.

Except reflect on the whole situation. After Kala left them the day Two-Face’s men broke into the building, he and Selina and Dinah had gotten the kids settled down for the night. Having seen the ‘heroes’ banter amongst themselves was a little more personal than Jay usually let people get, but the kids had been through a major shock and upheaval. They’d also seen Kala pull some significant powers, so getting to see her as just a normal person like them did a lot for their peace of mind.

Not that the grownups got any peace of any kind for a while. There was work to be done, finding spaces for them all, and Jay had personally checked out each location. He’d also made it abundantly clear to Bruce that, although his assistance had been extremely helpful and was very much appreciated, if any of them got shunted into the foster care system or a Robin suit, poor Doc Leslie would need to stand by to remove Jay’s steel-toed motorcycle boot from Bruce’s large colon. Bruce had agreed to those conditions without any colorful commentary.

With a few phone calls between Clark and Dick, Julio was sharing a legitimate studio apartment with Carl over in Metropolis. The other five were split into two groups, two of them near the Clock Tower under Dinah’s watchful eye, and the other three just a few blocks from Selina. Bruce either owned those properties, or as was the case in Metropolis, had simply paid two year’s lease in advance. All of the kids had their own smartphones now, fully paid for with unlimited data, and everybody had their own laptop too. The work they’d done hiding out was good enough for the younger kids to re-enroll in school, although Julio was old enough that he was just going to get his GED and be done with it.

The fact that those phones and computers had GPS trackers in them, and probably spyware running back to Babs, was something Jay decided he could live with. If the kids were out of his sight, he needed some way of knowing that they were safe, that no one was trying to recruit them, that they weren’t getting in serious trouble.

All of them also had paperwork on file that made them legally Dinah’s wards. She was the one whose public and private identities overlapped the most, so if there were any issues with the kids needing a guardian, she’d be the one contacted. When Babs had suggested that, Dinah had just shrugged. “Won’t be the first PTA meeting I’ve gone to,” she’d quipped.

Or the first doctor’s visit, and one of the concerns Selina had broached was letting Julio and Carl leave Doc Leslie’s sphere of influence. She’d only mentioned it after they left the kids for the night, though, not wanting to embarrass them. “Carl needs to be on birth control,” she’d said. “He’s at a stage where he’s asking a lot of questions about who he wants to be and what he wants to do, and I happen to know that teenagers tend to find their answers by trying on different identities. And trying out whatever sounds good.”

He’s also got a crush on Julio you can see from space,” Jay had added dryly. “So we need a free clinic in Metropolis that won’t give him any crap. Maybe some kind of sensible counseling, too? It’s gotta be hard to figure yourself out, if the factory equipment doesn’t match the software.”

They all need counseling,” Dinah said gently. “None of them were on the street because they wanted to be. Every one of them has some kind of trauma to work through. Unfortunately, Gotham street kids tend to think they can tough everything out, and they’re very shy of seeing a shrink.”

Jesus, Canary, just call us all out,” Selina had laughed.

I think she was mostly shanking the Bats with that one,” Jay put in.

Yeah, Bruce slept with his therapist, or so I heard. Whatever, I’m not throwing stones, I’ve got my own crap to deal with. The kids have each other, they’ve got us, and if anything gets serious, we’ll bring in professionals,” Dinah had said.

That they were able to wrap it all up in any kind of reasonable time just told Jay that it wouldn’t have been that hard for social services to do what they were doing. Those folks needed more time, more staff, more funding … and a decent way to sift through the bullshit calls and help people who could actually benefit. He wasn’t trying to save the world, though, just keep his corner of it a little less bloodstained.

So with that business taken care of, for the moment, he had settled in to enjoy a quiet night of not challenging his brain at all. Dinner, TV, and just veg out, that was all he had in mind.

Of course, his phone rang, and he wasn’t entirely surprised by the number that was trying to reach him. Honestly, he’d been expecting this since that little stunt in Denver; sometimes it took a while for the gossip to percolate, but it always got there in the end. He answered the call just by saying, “Jay here.”

What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Donna Troy asked.

Right now, nuking some mac and cheese for dinner,” Jay replied, and grinned to remember who’d stocked his fridge last. Kala kept doing that as often as she could; he probably had more disposable income than she did, but she liked taking care of him. And to be honest, he liked opening his fridge and finding groceries there he hadn’t bought. Like a wholesome surprise. “Why, what’re you up to?”

Wondering why Superman hasn’t picked you up and shaken some sense into you,” Donna shot back.

Yep, about how he expected this would go. “Nah, he’s cool. Actually realizes his baby daughter is a grown-ass woman who can make her own decisions. Now, the brother , he’s trying to be a problem, but I’ve got kryptonite if he decides to come back and finish me off.”

Leave Jason alone,” Donna snapped.

He couldn’t help it; he laughed at her. Figures she liked the goody-goody Super-sibling. “Chill, Donna, I’ve got nothing against him. He’s the one who came stomping into the Batcave yelling ‘Stay away from my sister!’ Had to tell the kid she’s the one who comes to me.”

I bet you did, too, you enormous jerk,” she sighed. “Jay … what the heck is this? I mean, we talked about her. Kala’s got issues. I was glad she was getting trained, and now this? You’re sleeping with your trainee? Of all the people, with everything you and I know, you went and fell in bed with her.”

Jay decided to enjoy this, because the alternative was getting pissed, and he didn’t want to be too pissed at Donna. She was a worry-wort, and if he let loose on her, he’d hurt her more than she deserved. Even if she was being a complete jackass about K right now.

Yeah, I trained her,” he said. “And she’s good. K’s got skills, she drained down the powers so she could learn to fight without ‘em, and she’s pretty fucking impressive. Now that she’s sunned up again, she’s all kinds of badass. And fun to work with, too, she knows my plays backwards and forwards. We make a helluva good team.”

And that’s a reason to seduce her,” Donna grumbled.

Seduce? Who do you think you’re talking to? Dick?” Ouch, that was too far, he dialed it back quickly. “K came after me, Donna. Intending to kick my ass and get some answers out of me, and when I finally coughed up the fact that I was into her, we basically wrecked my apartment. Nobody seduced anybody, it was good old-fashioned mutual lust. Remember that, Donna? You used to like it.”

He heard her sigh heavily. “Yes, you bring out the wild side in women. Good for you. Fine, it was mutual, but what on earth makes you think it’s a good idea? Kala’s a loose cannon, don’t try to tell me a few months has changed that!”

No, but she can call in her shots now,” Jay spat back. “You were completely off about Kala. That was all that was ever wrong, she had no lines of communication. You would’ve loved her the first half of summer, she was all ‘yes, sir’ to Bruce and toeing the line like a good soldier. You don’t know the first fucking thing about who she is and what she does and why she does it. You’ve got her wrong all the way back from when we first started fighting about her, and I got her right.”

“You want to think that,” Donna said stubbornly. “We met Kara! Our Supergirl is nothing like her!”

No, she’s a fucking exclusive,” Jay shot back. “When we were crossing universes, we heard about three of you and two of me, one of which was a fuckin’ ginger, but our world got the only Supergirl who’s Big Blue’s actual daughter. Not his cousin. Only here did we get both of his kids, and it’s no wonder she’s fiery, she’s Lois Lane’s daughter! Even your big sis gets out of Lane’s way.”

“We all know no one crosses Lois Lane,” Donna replied automatically.

“There’s a reason for that,” Jay insisted. “She’s got the temper. Superman fights because the powers mean he’s the only one who can take on certain things. His wife, and his daughter, fight because they fuckin’ like it. They’re warriors born, the both of them. K told me once she’d been to Themyscira, and Artemis wanted to keep her.”

She actually sniffed with disdain. “Of course she did. Artemis is just as much of a wild heathen as Kala.”

Jay chuckled. “Don’t like your sister’s girlfriend? Pity, she sounds like fun. You better be glad you were wrong about K, Don. If she was as much a loose cannon as you think, she’d just yeet your ass all the way back to Themyscira.”

Yeet? What does that even mean?” Donna asked waspishly.

He couldn’t help a rumbling laugh. “You need to talk to more people under twenty-five, Donna. Basically throw, with prejudice.”

“She couldn’t…” Donna began, and Jay cut her off.

Shut it, when it comes to powers like yours training doesn’t matter. Initiative does. Kala’s faster and meaner. The shit you said to and about her, she could’ve slam-dunked you into the sun before you knew she was coming.” That wasn’t entirely true, if Jay thought about it seriously. Donna was a warrior too, and not so easily defeated, no matter how ruthless Kala could be or how well he’d trained her.

You’re not exactly convincing me of anything good about her, here,” Donna said, her voice sharp.

Babs likes her,” Jay pointed out. “A lot. So does Dinah. Hell, so does Dick. Oh, I bet you know that already, that’s half of why you’re calling. Don’t be pissed, Donna, Dickie-Bird loves everyone as long as they don’t cross any of his moral lines. Shit, he even likes me these days. How could he resist someone who’s as much of a fucking showboat as him?”

Of course he does, he’s ridiculously forgiving, and now that she’s got some training he can’t shut up about her,” she replied bitterly. “He’s the one who told me to call you, actually. That still doesn’t mean anyone should let you train up a weapon of mass destruction, much less sleep with her!”

He scoffed at her, and any intention to be gentle with her was just gone. “I didn’t have to get anyone to sign my permission slip to train her or fuck her. We’re both grownups, Donna, for fuck’s sake. And she’s not the only WMB I’ve been to bed with. Whaddya think you are?”

Is that what the deal is?” Donna snapped. “I mean, she’s even got black hair. And she flies.”

Jay inhaled and let it out before answering her. “That’s a low fucking blow, Donna. Too low for you, even. Maybe I have a kink for women who can break me. So the fuck what? Other than that, K’s nothing like you. You fly like little old ladies drive. K flies like a fighter pilot playing around in VR. We went to Hong Kong in two hours. And I’ve watched her dodge bullets – that I shot at her, so it took some real acrobatics to get around.”

You shot at her?” Donna squeaked. “Oh my gods, Jay, you actually shot at Superman’s daughter?”

Relax, she was wearing an armored uniform I designed for her, and she had powers enough to slap the bullets aside,” Jay laughed. “It’s all part of training. And I absolutely appreciate a woman who can train to her breaking point, until she can’t even stand, and come back later to kick my ass. She’s good, Donna. Fuck, if you’d drop the shock and outrage you might like her.”

I doubt that,” she replied, with a sneer in her tone.

Gotta yank that ship’s mast out from up your ass, first,” Jay said. “When you were with me, you weren’t this stuck up.”

When I was with you, everyone thought I’d lost my mind,” Donna shot back.

Yeah, ‘cause you’re the good girl, nobody ever expects a girl like you to get with a guy like me – but I seem to get a lot of interest from women who are too good for me.” Jay shook his head, dinner forgotten. “I was the one losing my mind. We were living in a house in the suburbs, Donna. My natural habitat has a lot more concrete and crime.”

She made an exasperated noise. “We were both trying to get over all that craziness with the multiverse, and needed something a little quieter. I don’t remember you complaining at the time.”

I was sleeping with Troia. I’d had a crush on you since I was like thirteen! I would’ve followed you into Hell itself,” Jay told her, laughing at his own stupid younger self.

“You could’ve said something. And thanks, way to make me feel like a cradle-robber. For the record, us being together had nothing to do with that crush you had. You were a cute kid, but you grew up into a beautiful and … fucked-up man. You can’t blame me for being drawn to you.” She didn’t swear often, and Jay could almost hear her struggling with the words, but it was true. And she always tried to be truthful.

Yeah, but then you tried to fix me,” he said. “Some things you can’t fix, Donna.”

She challenged, “So what’re you doing with Kala, if not fixing her?”

She doesn’t need fixing, she just needed some experience and a little formal training,” Jay spat. “She’s smart enough not to try and fix me, either. She likes me just the way I am, crazy and all.”

Because she’s got her share of crazy, too,” Donna argued.

“She’s not as crazy as you think. At least K never called me Dick when mine was in her!” That just leapt out of him, and Jay bit his lip as soon as he’d said it. Dammit, he was trying not to hurt Donna. But she kept whaling on Kala, and he couldn’t abide that.

A long pause, and then she said in a tense, tight voice, “That was low, but I guess I deserved it. I screwed up and I know it, and I’m sorry, Jay. I never meant for that to happen.”

Yeah, no one ever does. I’m over it,” he said, trying to skirt the issue.

You’re a bad liar,” Donna told him. “And anyway, that wasn’t me being crazy, it was me being stupid. Embarrassingly so. Kala’s issues are a whole other situation.”

She wasn’t giving up, but at least she admitted she’d been wrong for that. So Jay took a deep breath before trying, one more time, to make her see. “You know why Kala never got trained? Why she stayed out of it all, unless her brother was in trouble?”

No. Do you?” And there was actual curiosity there.

 

 

It had taken Selina longer than it should’ve to find this location, but she always found what she was looking for eventually. She picked the lock easily, knowing security here was much more than just locks and alarms.

The place seemed quiet, but not an abandoned quiet, and she eased forward, listening at every third step. The air smelled fresh and clean despite the ramshackle exterior of the building, and when Selina sniffed deeply, she caught a whiff of cinnamon. “She’s stress-baking again,” she whispered to herself.

Somewhere off to her left, something moved, and a low, nervous chuckle echoed through the apartment. Selina turned in that direction, but heard a new noise that changed the whole game: the sound of the hammer on a very large revolver being drawn back. And a faint rustling like tree branches in the wind.

Relax, girls, it’s me,” she called out, standing still with her hands up. “Harls? Pam? I just came to see if you were all right.”

A light flicked on, showing her Harley standing in the hallway in just a t-shirt and panties, her gun aimed at Selina. One of the hyenas was at her side, his tail tucked under, still making the nervous titter that people tending to mistake for laughter. And Ivy…

Selina felt a slight tug at her ankle, and in the next instant she was hanging upside down from a vine wrapped around one leg. She sighed, and crossed her arms. “I would’ve called first, but your phone’s out.”

I broke the SIM cards,” Pam explained, stepping past Harley – who had at least un-cocked the gun. The redhead looked up at Selina calmly. “Phones can be tracked.”

Joker’s not gonna be doing any tracking,” Selina said, looking at them both. Harley’s eyes were shadowed, as if she hadn’t been sleeping, and her pale throat was ringed in old yellowish bruises. Two of her fingers were splinted, too, and there were healing scrapes on her knuckles. More bruises on her legs and the sliver of belly that Selina could see, but none of that was a surprise. They all knew it had to have been a big fight.

Pam was unscathed, not a mark on her green skin anywhere the nightgown she wore showed it. Then again, the witness statements from the veterinarian indicated that she hadn’t been in it at all, arriving to the clinic well after the fact. Selina still preferred to verify things herself.

She continued, as if being strung up to the ceiling and held at gunpoint were a normal evening, “His biggest worry these days is bedsores. He might just be eating through a tube up his nose for the rest of his hopefully very much shortened life. Good job, Harls.”

At that, Harley laughed, her voice jagged. “Not good enough. I shoulda killed ‘im.”

Yeah, well, we’ve been saying that for years,” Selina replied with a shrug. “Pam, could you let me down? Please?”

I’m not worried about Joker tracking us down,” Ivy said. “It’s your boyfriend I’m trying to keep clear of. Which is why you can stay right there while I decide what to do with you.”

Selina sighed heavily. “Look, girls, the Bat’s mostly worried about you sneaking into Gotham General and pulling the plug. Yeah, he’s looking for you both, but if I wanted him to find you, do you really think I’d walk in the door first?”

They looked at each for a moment, then back to her. Lou, pressed against Harley’s leg, whined softly. Selina just waited; trust was hard to come by, among their set. Everyone in Gotham knew she and Batman had something. These two knew a bit more than that, namely that Selina had genuine feelings for the guy. But she’d never sold them out to the Bats. Just like she’d never let the whole run of Wayne secret identities slip to the girls. It was hard to walk the line between worlds, but she managed it.

Oh, let her down,” Harley finally said. “What else are we gonna do, hold her hostage? Yeah, that’d be rich.”

Ivy still hesitated, but they all heard a brief, pained whine. Lou spun and hurried up the hall, whimpering; a moment later Bud limped up to stand in front of his mistress.

Aw, Bud, you poor thing,” Selina crooned, and he did look miserable. His whole side was shaved, along with one foreleg; he was holding one foot up as if it hurt to bear weight on it; and most pitiful of all, he was wearing an Elizabethan collar to keep him from chewing at his stitches. “They got you in the cone of shame, Bud, I’m so sorry.”

Harley scratched his head, and he leaned into her. With a sigh, Ivy let her down, and Selina went over to the hyena, crouching down fearlessly. They were catlike, in their way, and he gave a contented groan as she rubbed his face. “Poor baby , I know, it’s hard out there for a hyena, yes it is.” Lou shoved his muzzle under her arm, and she kissed his nose. “Good Lou, you’re watching out for your brother?”

They had to do a blood transfusion,” Harley said. “Luckily for me, they’re the same blood group. Bud, he was … it was real bad. That vet is a saint, lemme tell ya. Good man.”

Smart man,” Ivy said. “He waited to call the police after we left.”

Selina leaned away from the hyenas, who were both trying to lick her face. “Yeah, that pissed off the Bats something good, but it was the smartest choice. I’ll tell you, girls, the capes are more worried about whether you two are gonna be okay than anything else.”

How charmingly altruistic,” Ivy said dryly. “Batman is the one who insisted on sunlight in my cell at Arkham, I haven’t forgotten that. It doesn’t change the fact that he wants us both in a cell. Until we’re ‘cured’.”

Selina shrugged. “He’s got a hate-on for crime, ladies. Mostly violent crime, but he’s locked me up, too.” She patted the hyenas one last time, and stood up to look Harley in the eyes. “ You , Harls. I’m so glad to see you – and see you’re not hurt any worse.”

Glancing at her splinted fingers, Harley shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

It’s not nothing,” Selina said, and caught her shoulders, hugging her. The blonde was stiff for a moment, then relaxed, leaning into her gratefully. Against her shoulder, Selina continued, “I’m proud of you, Harls. That was a long time coming.”

Yeah, it was,” she said in a small voice.

That almost sounded regretful, and Selina leaned back to look at her seriously. “Are you really okay? I’m not asking because that’s what good guys do, I’m asking as your friend. Big changes are always difficult, even if they’re for the better.”

Harley nodded, her blue eyes huge. “I’m good. It’s … it can’t be easy, y’know? But I’m through with him. Soon as I can work my way around security, I’m gonna put an end to this, once and for all.”

Selina felt an unexpected chill up her back at that. It should’ve been a great idea, but it sounded like a terrible one to her. “Be careful, Harls. I don’t need you getting taken out by the cops, okay?”

As if I’d let that happen,” Ivy grumbled.

Selina shivered. Sometimes she felt foreboding like this, and wondered if it was the same kind of feeling that made Miss Kitty’s eyes go wide, put her hackles up, and sent her racing around the apartment after something no human could see. Whatever it was, Selina didn’t ignore a hunch. “I’m serious, Harley. The smartest thing you could do would be to walk away. Hell, let Hood off him – I heard a rumor he’s a little jealous that you got to beat the bastard unconscious instead of him.”

Harley rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Hoodie had his run at Mistah J back before I even got my internship. He had his chance. This time, I’m gonna be the one who does it.”

There’s a lot of people in this town who think they should take him out,” Selina said frankly. “Best idea would be to string him up like a piñata, let everyone take a whack.”

Harley giggled at that, but Ivy just looked at Selina thoughtfully. “As far as I’m concerned, a good idea would be getting out of this miserable town.”

But Pammy…” Harley said pleadingly, “I wanna go kill Mistah J! After everything he’s done, to me, to you, to everybody, I wanna be the one to punch his clock!”

The worst thing he ever did to me, was make me watch you walking away from me for him,” Ivy said with cold honesty that made Selina flinch. Apparently her being here had touched off a conversation the two had managed not to have over the last few days. Harley looked wide-eyed at Ivy, who continued, “From where I stand, you going to kill him looks much the same as you going to join him. Let him rot, Harley. You shattered his skull. Odds are, he’ll die anyway – and if he doesn’t, someone will put him down. Hood’s on the short list for that, but Selina’s right. There’s a long line of retribution waiting for him.”

Selina bit her lip, thinking. She’d said Jay would kill Joker, and she was pretty sure Jay thought he’d kill Joker, but maybe having a Super at his side changed the outcome a little. “Whether Hood does or not … Joker’s lived through a lot of things that should’ve killed him. If he ever does get out of that hospital bed, Harley, he’s gonna come hunting you. Maybe leaving is the best bet.”

Harley looked from Pam to Selina, her expression torn. “But … I don’t wanna leave Gotham. We had this conversation, I don’t wanna run away. I need to finish this.”

You need to do what’s best for you. Not Joker, not this miserable city. And you’re the only one who can decide what that is. What would be best for me is going someplace greener than this.” Ivy laughed, shaking her head. “I’d almost decided to leave, but … you were here. And I still had hope.”

What’s here for you, Harls?” Selina asked softly. “I mean, pissing off Batman is a great hobby, but is that all you wanna do for the rest of your life? You’ve got Pam and the boys. You’ve both got more smarts than should legally be allowed in one room. You can make it anywhere. Gotham’s not that special a town.”

Not that special? You sure seem to love it,” Harley pointed out.

I have to love this cesspool, I was born here, but you’re from Brooklyn. If you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere, right? You can go wherever you want.” Selina herself could go anywhere, and had, but there was a reason she kept coming back. Said reason was six-foot-two, not counting the cowl, but she preferred to let everyone think it was nostalgia for the old hometown.

You also have someone who can only be pried out of Gotham by a full-scale global threat or alien invasion,” Ivy said, echoing her thoughts. “Harley, the only thing I care about in Gotham is you.”

The blonde blushed a little at that. “Aw, come on,” she said, still shy of praise. “Hey Selina, I made cinnamon buns. You want a couple? Also you wanna come sit down and talk, since we’re not gonna shoot each other tonight?”

Selina laughed at that very Harley segue. “Sure. Just one, though, there’s no room to let the seams out in this outfit.”

They moved into the living room, Harley heading into the kitchen, and Selina helped Bud get up on the couch. The big hyena sighed heavily, sprawling out, and she ran a hand down his spotted flank. Bandages on his chest hinted at a very close call, indeed. Lou hopped up beside him, licking her hand and gazing up at her. Selina herself sat on the arm of the couch, ceding it to the two hyenas whose combined weight made the springs groan.

Harley thinks Lou may be traumatized,” Ivy said, taking one of the chairs. “Are they cat enough for you to tell him he’ll be all right?”

You know I don’t actually talk to cats, right?” Selina said, but she petted Lou and murmured, “You’re a good boy, Lou. You’re okay. Bud’s gonna be okay. And Auntie Pam will make sure your mom’s okay.” He whined and licked her chin, which she could’ve lived without, honestly. The hyena’s breath was an experience.

She’s … fragile,” Ivy murmured. “But determined. I’ve never seen her like this.”

He should’ve known not to hurt the boys,” Selina said, shaking her head. “Self-absorbed asshole. Sadistic, psychotic asshole, too. I bet it surprised the hell outta him when she kicked his ass.”

Let’s hope he never regains consciousness to ask,” Ivy replied, and the look in her eyes was murderous.

Selina looked over at her, cocking her head to the side. “You never did it because she wouldn’t forgive you, right?”

Those green eyes went flat and cold for an instant, and the hair on the nape of Selina’s neck tried to stand up inside her suit. “If anyone else had done this, Harley would kill them … or die trying,” Ivy said carefully. “ He knew that. And said as much to me. Among other things.”

It really was a wonder that Joker had lived this long. “I’m sure he got his jollies figuring out twisted shit to say to all of us,” Selina replied.

I gave him the ammunition,” Ivy told her with a shrug.

Well, to be fair, she had gone and decided that his sidekick and lover was the one human being in the world she cared about, so that did kind of leave her vulnerable. Ivy couldn’t have picked a worse person to fall in love with. Then again, Selina had fallen for a guy who was: one, morally opposed to her profession; two, a costumed vigilante good enough to catch her; and three, deeply emotionally fucked up with all kinds of issues around abandonment and commitment.

Oh wait, don’t forget number four: married. To the Daughter of the Demon. Who hadn’t been back to her London flat yet, and Selina was wondering how long her ‘gift’ would stay effective. Yeah, she really couldn’t throw shade at Pam.

Some of that must’ve shown in her expression, because Ivy asked, “What did Joker ever say to you?”

Mostly just that I had shitty taste in men. Which, hey, can’t deny,” Selina replied, which was glossing over a lot. Everyone knew Joker was crazy and vicious; the thing people forgot was how damn smart he was, and how good his insight into the human psyche was. Selina had steered clear of him as much as possible, and when she couldn’t, she tried not to let herself seem unnerved. She felt like Miss Kitty, who had once accidentally walked too close to a chained junkyard dog. Luckily the chain was about six inches too short for the mutt to get his teeth into her best girl, but Miss Kitty had frozen for a moment as the furious barking shattered the air so close to her.

And then sat down to groom her toes with studied nonchalance, as the dog went crazy trying to get her. Selina had come along and picked her up, not liking the way the chain groaned with each lunge. She’d used that same careful lack of reaction when Joker fixed her with his terribly intense gaze and chuckled, “He’ll never really love you. The man is married to Gotham, and you’ve been a bad, bad kitty. Does he know just how bad? Does he know how you know all the high society etiquette, and where you learned it? I bet he does, I bet he squirms a little wondering what dear old mum and dad would think of their precious boy running around with an East End whore …”

She’d yawned in his face then, just like Miss Kitty. “Get some new material, Joker. I heard that one years ago.”

She shouldn’t have dared him, she’d known that even then, but her pride wouldn’t let her show that those words hurt. He’d grinned that horrible split grin at her, and crooned, “You’re right, you’re right, Batsy’s a thoroughly modern post-feminist, he’s not going to judge you – but really, kitty-cat, you should charge him. He’s got to be loaded to afford all those toys. And you know you’re just how he outsources the emotional labor, all the things he can’t let himself feel because he might go a little batty if he did. If you’re gonna do the work for him, you should at least get paid for it.”

That had hurt, too, and Selina had leaned in close, smiling as ruthlessly as he did – because one thing she had learned along the way was how to smile when she really wanted to cry. “You’re reaching, Jokes. I’m just using him to get what I want. Isn’t that what we all do?”

Calling him anything other than Joker had provoked his anger like a flash-flood, and he’d taken a swipe at her. Selina returned it with interest, but she’d gotten away rather than fight it out. She’d told herself it was because she didn’t want Harley complaining to her later, but mostly it was because she’d been thoroughly unnerved. Clarity and communication were hard in any relationship, worse when both of you wore masks on a regular basis and kept more secrets than the Vatican library.

Ivy scoffed, breaking into her reverie. “ Men are terrible, not your taste in them.”

Aw, come on, some of them are fun,” Selina said with a chuckle.

Harley came back in then, with homemade cinnamon buns and coffee. “Nah, men are terrible. Sorry, Selina, no Bat-fans here. I dunno what you see in the guy.”

Chiseled jaw and a nice butt,” Selina retorted, and all of them laughed.

He is kinda cute. For a brooding vigilante,” Harley admitted. She poured coffee for all of them, then sat on the arm of Ivy’s chair. “Hey, Selina, since you mentioned Hood – what do you know about the new girl, Blur?”

What is she?” Ivy echoed.

Fast, and trouble,” Selina said, making herself sound rueful. This was another of those things she couldn’t tell the girls; breaking open the Supers’ identities was something she absolutely didn’t want to do. Hell, she liked Lois Lane. Someone should’ve gotten that one in a costume years ago, she’d really shake up the JLA. All she said was, “It’s no fun doing rooftop chases with someone who can outrun a Ferrari. Luckily she’s more interested in Hood’s kind of bad guys than little old me.”

Harley looked at her knowingly. “ Little , right. Didn’t you steal the Hope diamond just to prove you could?”

I only kept it overnight. That’s borrowing, not stealing. And putting it back was harder than taking it.” Saying so reminded her again of breaking into Talia’s London flat, and she smiled a little to herself, hiding it by taking a bite of her cinnamon bun.

Ivy only shook her head. “I’ve met Blur. She shouldn’t have been able to throw off my control. The speed alone makes her some kind of meta, but that means she has something else, too. Be careful, Selina.”

Selina just shrugged with her customary insouciance. “I try not to get the big guns’ attention. Hood is fine, he doesn’t care about my kind of crime. And Blur’s not out every night.”

She can take a hit,” Harley put in. “Most people fold up when I whack ‘em over the head with a police baton; not Blur. She was getting chewed on by the boys, too, and if Pammy hadn’t come in, I think she woulda got away.”

This was getting more uncomfortable by the moment, Selina’s divided loyalties poking at her. She liked Kala, who was obviously good for Jay, too. Even Bruce liked her in his very undemonstrative Bruce way. But she absolutely couldn’t let Harley or Ivy find out there was a Kryptonian in Gotham. It’d be pure mayhem, one of them might leak the knowledge, and then every mask in town would start carrying kryptonite. Some of them already were, thanks to Superboy, but Kala had made a much bigger impression.

At the same time, she didn’t want the girls to run afoul of Kala, who was packing more firepower than anyone else in Gotham. Selina genuinely liked both Harley and Pam, something she couldn’t say about many people, and she didn’t want them getting hurt. Or locked up again, if she could help it.

I think you’re right, there’s more to that one than meets the eye,” Selina finally said. “Bats is very careful about what he lets slip, where she’s concerned. I’d steer clear, ladies.”

Harley took a bite of her cinnamon bun, and held out a piece for Bud, who slurped it up eagerly. “I got no problem with her. She knocked me out before I ever saw her, the first time, and I heard she checked up on the boys at the zoo. Can’t hate an animal lover, y’know?”

Oh, is that why we’re friends?” Selina asked, chuckling. Harley just stuck her tongue out in response.

I’d rather not deal with metahumans,” Ivy said, regardless of the fact that she was one. “I’ve got nothing major planned for the winter, anyway. It shouldn’t be hard to steer clear.”

What about spring?” Selina asked.

A pause, and Ivy sighed. “I was planning to leave in the spring, to go somewhere more tropical. But Harley … things have changed. I won’t go without you.”

Harley looked at her worriedly. “Red, I dunno. I mean, I get why you’d want to go. Lots of places would be much better for you than this. Gotham’s got too much smog.”

The winters are terrible, too,” Ivy replied. “Other than a couple of city parks, there’s nothing green here. And I hear the Green calling me.” Her eyes looked faraway when she spoke, the humanity in them flickering.

Selina wondered sometimes if the Green that Ivy spoke of was something else , something outside that the others couldn’t hear, or maybe just something in her own perception. She’d been committed to Arkham for insisting that the Green was real, among other things – the headshrinkers took a dim view of anyone claiming that a voice told them what to do. That Ivy’s Green was the voice of the vegetable world just made her seem more deluded to the doctors at Arkham.

Harley seemed to believe her absolutely, but Harley had believed in more impossible things, like Joker having a functional sense of empathy. Selina was still on the fence about it. She didn’t discount her own intuition, ever, but she rolled her eyes at the notion that she was some kind of avatar of all things feline. She understood cats well enough to feel safe handling any of them, even the big cats. And she’d consciously modeled her Catwoman persona around feline myths and legends. But she didn’t hear the voice of Bastet in her mind, or anything like that.

If there was anything supernatural about Selina, it was Miss Kitty. Who had to be about ten years old, and still looked the same as ever – but cats didn’t show their age much. And who was at least as intelligent and perceptive as a human being – but that was a low bar to clear, considering most humans. Selina didn’t think about it, she just accepted Miss Kitty as she was, the same way she expected anyone in her life to accept her as she was.

Harley ran a hand through Ivy’s red hair, and the warmth came back to her gaze as she looked up at her. The blonde sighed. “I dunno, Red. I just – if you went, I guess I’d have to go with you. Selina’s right, I don’t have much reason to stay, once Joker’s in the ground.”

“I can think of one reason,” Ivy said softly, and Harley swallowed, looking away.

Selina didn’t know what that was about, but she knew she couldn’t push either of them to leave, even if her intuition said it was best. That was the difference between her and Bruce. He tried to get people to do what was in their own best interest. She knew too many who’d ruin themselves just to be able to say they weren’t manipulated.

In the end, she just shrugged. “Girls, if you decide to go, I’ll miss the hell out of you. We had some good times – ”

When you weren’t turning us in,” Ivy pointed out.

Hey, I broke you out at least as often as I got you locked up,” Selina argued. Lou licked her hand, whining, as Bud gave a complaining groan. The hyenas had had enough of interpersonal quarreling, and Selina softened her tone. “Look, we’ve all screwed each other over. That’s life in Gotham. But I don’t want either of you hurt. If you go, I won’t tell the Bat where to look. Mostly ‘cause I don’t wanna know. I am gonna miss you, though, so … send postcards? Maybe email? It’s your life, ladies, I’d just sleep a lot easier if you were nowhere near Gotham General and the Joker.”

Ivy looked at her shrewdly. “Is this one of your feline hunches?”

Sighing, Selina rolled her eyes. “You’re the meta in the room, Pam. I just have a good schtick.”

I’m not talking about this,” Harley declared. “Right now security on Gotham General is tighter than Cobblepot’s fist around a hundred-dollar bill. I’ve been bidin’ my time, waitin’ for a chance to go finish what I started, and I’m not gonna give up without at least thinkin’ it over real good.”

Sure, I understand that,” Selina said, looking at Ivy. The redhead raised one eyebrow and gave a slight shrug. They both knew Harley was difficult to persuade once she had her heart set on something.

Glad we got that sorted,” Harley said.

The Bats are smart enough to know you’re thinking about it,” Selina offered. “They’ll be watching for you both. You can get away with just about anything else, right now, but if you go near the hospital, one of them will be waiting.”

She saw Harley’s eyes go wary, almost hunted, and then she shook her head. “It’s too soon to worry about it. No one knows for sure if he’s gonna live through each day. Maybe he’ll do us all a favor and just croak. But if he doesn’t … I’m not makin’ any promises, Selina. One way or the other.”

Selina really wished she had a way to convince Harley that it didn’t matter, that by beating the hell out of Joker, she’d done all she needed to. But convincing people wasn’t her strong suit.

Instead, Ivy said musingly, “If we could get away with anything else, just now … Selina, would you like to rob a bank? Maybe two?”

Yeah! I love hittin’ banks, it’s the looks on the rich people’s faces when they realize they can’t make this problem go away,” Harley chortled.

Selina rolled her eyes heavenward. Forgive me, Bruce, she thought, and leaned forward to discuss which banks would be best.

Chapter Text

Donna Troy had just learned a few hours ago that her most obstreperous ex-boyfriend was doing something incredibly stupid. Again. She’d called Dick first, ranting at him for letting this happen, and why hadn’t he put a stop to it?

For the first time in a long time – maybe the first time ever – Dick had lost his temper with her. Dick, who had anger issues like all the Robins, hell, like all the hero kids, but he’d gotten a good grip on it as he’d grown up. She trusted him implicitly, and loved him as only two kids who’d been through hell together could, and when he snapped at her, something in her chest had ratcheted down into a tight ball of pain.

You want to know what the hell is going on? Call Jay and ask him, he’d told her. You won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to him. You’ve got his number.

That was cold, but true. And she hadn’t been listening to Dick. The worry-rat in her own mind had been gnawing hard, all of her instincts lit up like alarm bells blaring this is a bad idea, this is dangerous, two wild cards running together, bad news, the potential for disaster is too high … and Dick had tried to tell her half a dozen times that Kala was fine, Kala was good, her training had gone beautifully.

She had a hard time picturing that. Donna had seen Kala, young and beautiful and powerful and so damn certain of herself. The merry hellfire in her eyes, the way she lunged into a fight almost joyfully, and it had taken every ounce of Donna’s restraint not to snatch her up and scream into her face, This is not a game! You could get yourself and everyone you care about killed, little girl!

The way she wished someone had yelled at her, when she was sixteen and perfect in her confidence. When she thought she and Dick and Roy and the rest had the world in the palms of their hands.

The way someone really should’ve yelled at her when she was eighteen and her surety was battered, but she still believed she’d make all the right choices.

The way no one had dared to yell at her when she was twenty and sleeping with her professor and closing her ears to any hint that maybe she should slow down and rethink things. That maybe trusting someone who seemed so certain, so confident in himself, wasn’t a substitute for finding her own shattered faith in herself. Dick and Diana both, all they’d asked was if she loved Terry, and Donna had said yes because she thought it was true … and because saying so might make it true. No one had stopped her, taken her by the shoulders, and asked her what the hell she was doing, giving up her powers to be just an ordinary woman, to be a wife and mother.

The only man Donna knew who had ever dared to shake her certainty was on the phone right now, lashing out with words because she’d questioned him. Somehow she knew that if he’d been around for that, Jay would’ve wondered out loud and very profanely what the fuck she was doing, giving up who she was for someone else. He damn sure wouldn’t have done that.

So she took a deep breath, and steeled herself to listen. Donna leaned against the kitchen counter in her apartment, phone pressed tight to her ear. She could hear Jay gritting his teeth; he’d never liked explaining things, period. Much less to her. But one thing she knew about him, he’d defend someone he cared about, no matter what. “It all goes back to Kala getting kidnapped when she was sixteen. Didja know Luthor had General Zod, too?”

She shivered at that name, a villain she’d been very glad never to have faced. “Diana told me that Luthor faked his death and took him prisoner. Kala was lucky to escape alive; Di admired her for surviving it.” She couldn’t help a hint of jealousy, too, for anyone Diana admired – as if the princess and warrior and big sister had ever stinted in her love. It wasn’t like that, but even this many years later, Donna couldn’t help feeling like she was an inferior copy, and she couldn’t quite stop herself from feeling a spark of hurt for anyone else Diana favored. She stubbed it out, every time, knowing it was her own fear speaking, but somehow she couldn’t keep it from springing alight in the first place.

Jay wasn’t going to touch any kind of sibling rivalry, though, because he didn’t have a leg to stand on and knew it. Instead, he told her, “It’s a little more complicated than that. Luthor has a copy of these crystals with all the information Krypton’s greatest scientists collected. Including weapons technology, but that’s buried real deep. Luthor couldn’t get to it by himself, he needed a native speaker of Kryptonese to unlock it. That’s why he took Zod. And Zod figured out what Luthor wanted, and lied to him. Told him he needed a genetic descendant of Jor-El to get at that data. That’s why he kidnapped Kala. Luthor wanted to come at us with Kryptonian weaponry, shit that’s advanced way beyond anything we’ve ever seen.” Surprisingly, Jay, who had walked across worlds and returned from the as-good-as-dead, sounded spooked by the prospect.

Donna murmured something in Greek a lot older than anything he would’ve heard at the gyro shop, and Jay gave an honest chuckle. “Yeah, it freaks me out, too. Zod saved Kala from some of Luthor’s goons, and he collaborated with her to keep Luthor from getting at that information. He was pretty much her only ally, for the four days or so that Luthor had her. And in the end, she killed him.”

She gasped at that, which Diana had not seen fit to share, and Jay rolled on before she could interject anything. “It’s not my story to tell. The community thinks Luthor killed him; they’re wrong. It was K. Because she realized at the last minute that the sonofabitch was grooming her, and he’d kill Big Blue and her brother if he could. She took him out first. Kala is the only reason why we’re not all pledging allegiance to the House of Zod these days.”

“I never knew it was that close,” Donna whispered, nightmares chortling in her ears. She’d faced bad odds, herself – and died.

“Yeah, and you know how you used to bitch about saving the world before you could drive? She was sixteen. Fuck, I think she’d only been sixteen for a couple months. Just a kid. Just like us. That’s why she bowed out. That fucker Zod got in her head, and she thought she was too much like him to ever be a hero. She was trying to be a civvie, just step in when she couldn’t avoid it, and then one of the fucking founding Titans shows up when she just saved the day and reads her the riot act, chews her ass in front of her brother and his buddies.”

Donna winced. It sounded like she had more in common with Kala than she ever would’ve guessed. Trying to walk away from the hero life because you knew you weren’t good enough – oh, she could empathize. Enough to cringe a little even now. In Donna’s case, it had been Terry who’d looked askance at her powers, who’d worried that she was simply too much for a normal life, and after being a hero so young all she’d wanted was normalcy, safety, certainty. Sanity. They’d even wondered if Robert might inherit her abilities, and that had frightened Terry badly. So Donna had given it all up.

But nothing could change what she was. Her life was a gift from the gods themselves, a wish made by a desperate grieving mother, and just surrendering her powers didn’t make her normal. Nothing ever would.

Strange how Jay was probably the only one who’d looked at her weirdness squarely, and been neither frightened nor awed. He’d been in awe of her as a kid, but that was the primal power of cleavage, nothing mystical about it. Jay had accepted what she was and treated her normally. He’d made her freaky circumstances a non-issue, just part of her.

The only other person in her life who’d treated her like that was Dick. And Donna wouldn’t damage that for anything.

She sighed, focusing on the conversation at hand and not all their old history. She hadn’t been entirely wrong about Kala. “She saved the day, yes, but she created a whole new problem for the rest of them in doing so. That’s just the kind of slapdash unplanned nonsense that gets people killed, Jay, and you know it.”

Jay grumbled under his breath, the way he used to do when his head ached with phantom pains from injuries the Lazarus Pit should’ve healed. “And you worry too damn much. You know that, too. Haven’t you ever heard that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy? All that shit out there has to be improvised, past a certain point. And now K knows how not to swamp the good guys with a pressure wave, and she’s got a comm to let them know she’s coming, so how about you lay off? That won’t happen again. The situation’s resolved.”

“How would we know?” she challenged again. “As soon as she got trained up, you decided she’s going to be your partner. Anything she does wrong is gonna be covered up by working with a veteran. And since when do you have a partner?”

“Oh, are you jealous now?” Jay shot back. “Maybe she doesn’t work with your crowd because she’s heard that Goth Barbie shit one too many times, and if I hear it, I’m putting a boot up someone’s ass. Or maybe she just doesn’t have the time – she has to sneak away from her day job to run with me.”

“You still didn’t answer why she’s your partner. Seriously, Jay, we talked about this girl, and you not only trained her, you went and slept with her the first chance you got.” Donna was thoroughly nettled now. She’d stamped down on the ‘Goth Barbie’ foolishness, too. No matter what anyone thought of one another’s fashion choices, the team shouldn’t take potshots at each other like that. That was less important to her than getting to the bottom of his reasons for what seemed like the worst idea of the century.

He’d defended Donna like this, once upon a time, and it also hurt to hear him speak so staunchly of someone else now. Someone who worried Donna so much.

Jay ground his teeth audibly. “Actually, no, she said she wasn’t in Gotham to hook up, so I never made a move. Not even when training got a little physical and it was pretty clear we were both thinking nasty thoughts about each other. So no, I did not sleep with her the first chance I got. When she made it clear she wanted to go there, and not just as a distraction, then yeah, I went there. As for partners , sue me if she’s the first one to really get me and not try to change me. I’m sick of all that. She knows how I work, she’ll back me up, and she’s damn good to have on my side in a fight. I’m not hoarding her over here in Gotham, she’s free to go wherever she wants, but she likes this fucked-up town. And Gotham could use some of that light she shines everywhere.”

Another long pause, and then Donna sighed. “Jay…”

“Not to mention, you get zero say in who I sleep with,” he continued, rolling right over whatever she was about to tell him. “You’re not my mom, Donna, you’re my ex. What and who I do after you is none of your business. Yeah, we talked about her – and you were wrong. Like I said. Also she was ready to drop-kick me across the bay when she figured out that you and I were a thing. You really pissed her off good. Notice that she hasn’t like toilet-papered your house or anything.”

“I’d like to believe that what I think still carries some weight with you,” Donna said waspishly.

Jay snorted a laugh. “Oh hell, Donna, are you really jealous? I was throwing that out there, I didn’t think you actually were.”

“Of course not,” she sighed, rolling her eyes. It was only a little true. “Could you maybe stop pretending to be this … hardcore thug I know you’re not? For like five minutes? You’ve done nothing but swing at me since I called. I know you better than that, Jay.”

“Do you?” he asked instantly, pushy as ever. Defensive as ever, too.

“I’ll bet you fifty bucks there’s an Austen novel within five feet of your bed,” she retorted, just to prove the point.

“No bet, and K figured that out too,” he said. “Maybe half the reason I like her is she gets that no, I’m not just another gutter rat. But she doesn’t try to change the way I like to be seen. It’s protective coloration in this town, Donna. The bully-boys in the street aren’t interested in debating the finer points of classic lit when they could be bashing your brains in. Only the fact that I’ll swing first keeps them respectful.”

She grumbled under her breath, then said aloud, “Fine. But Jay, why would you go and sleep with the one person in the community you knew I had reservations about? If I’m so wrong about her, you could’ve called me and told me.”

“I told you before I even met her,” he replied. “And it wasn’t about you. Donna, come on. I had a massive crush, and you were letting me stand in for Dick. Don’t talk about it like we were some epic thing.”

That … that hurt more than it should’ve, and Donna swallowed. She’d made more than her share of mistakes in life, but that had been one of the worst. And nothing she could say or do now would ever convince Jay that he’d been more than the available brother.

She owed him the attempt, though.

 

 

Jay expected a sharp reply, he’d swung to wound, but Donna let the silence hang for a beat too long. He wondered what she was thinking, or if she’d just try to sweep it all under the rug. When she spoke, she surprised him. “It wasn’t just that. Dammit, Jay, I was wrong for that. And … thank you, for not telling him about it.”

“I’m an asshole, but I’m not that big of an asshole,” he replied with a short laugh.

He could almost hear Donna shaking her head in denial. “You’re not really an asshole at all. You just want everyone to think you are. And I thought I was more than just a crush.”

That, Jay wasn’t gonna touch. He already had issues with four-letter words starting with L, and no way did he want to analyze his relationship with Donna. She was the kind of person who would’ve liked to pick things over, examine every conversation, sift every meeting for some kind of deeper meaning. Hell, it was in the past, and he was happy to leave it there. Donna had moved on, so had he. No need to discuss it further.

But he needed to shake her off that topic, so Jay pulled another below-the-belt punch. “C’mon, Donna, don’t make it sound like we were all True Love and shit. I wasn’t Mr. Right, I was Mr. Right Now. Maybe Mr. Right Place at the Right Time. If not for the multiverse, we would’ve never hooked up. And you weren’t even the second most important person I ever slept with.”

That stung, and he knew it would, but she didn’t hang up like he expected. “What the hell, how did Rose top out?” Donna said, half-laughing. Still, he heard the taut anger under her voice.

And oh shit, he’d left an opening there he shouldn’t have. No way was he gonna confess to Donna about Talia. “There’s four whole years of my life where all of you thought I was dead, that you guys know nothing about,” Jay said. “I’ve slept with people you never even heard of.”

She gave an aggravated sigh, and Jay realized she thought he was lying. Whatever, that might be the best outcome. To his surprise, though, the next thing Donna said was, “At least you admit Kala’s the most important. If you hadn’t cut me off, I was going to tell you I’m sorry. For being prejudiced toward her. What you said about her shining her light … Gotham does need that. And I imagine it doesn’t exactly hurt you, either.”

Too close, so Jay just scoffed. “Yeah, a week or so ago she wore a pair of glow-in-the-dark cat panties and almost got shot in the ass for shining too much. That would’ve hurt me, on a spiritual level, to damage an ass like that.”

“Oh my gods,” Donna groaned. “Jay! Knock it off, I know better.”

“You think you do,” he replied.

“You’re impossible. And a huge pain in the neck. Why did I ever get involved with you?” He could imagine her expression, looking heavenward as if Zeus himself might answer.

Shit, in her case, he actually might. And Jay was not gonna think about the possibility of any gods actually existing.

“Blue eyes and nice abs,” Jay shot back, grinning.

Donna laughed at that. “Sure, Jay. Go ahead and think that. All right, I was wrong about Kala. I’ll make it up to her. The main reason I called is, are you happy?”

And there it was – the real reason she’d called. Donna still gave a shit about him. What the hell was up with his life, where in the last few months two of his exes were throwing hints that he still mattered? Jay couldn’t figure it out; he thought he’d burned this bridge when he walked out on Donna.

He was still feeling flippant and defensive, so his answer couldn’t be the simple Yes that was the truth. “I’m fucking Supergirl, of course I’m happy,” Jay laughed.

She made a disgusted noise. “You try so hard to be so gross. Too bad I know better now. Fine, Jay, don’t talk about it. I only want to know one more thing. What happens if you go off the deep end again?”

Jay gritted his teeth. “Nice to know you have as much faith in me as always.”

“It’s not about faith. We both have issues, let’s not pretend otherwise. And we both know we’re not the most stable people on the planet.” Donna’s voice was tight and cold. “What happens if you do start to spin out, Jay?”

Kala’s issues weren’t his to tell; she knew his darkness better than Donna did, because she had her own. But there was something he could say. “K’s not gonna let me go out collecting drug dealers’ heads,” he spat. “That whole partners thing? Means I trust her to tell me when I’m overdoing it. Just like she trusts me to tell her when she’s being too much of a Super, and piling on the guilt for stuff that’s not her fault.”

Donna sighed. “Dick did say she was good for you. He’s all but crowing about this.”

“She is good for me,” Jay replied. He didn’t like the turn this conversation had taken; Donna wasn’t being put off by his deflections, and she sounded entirely too serious. He couldn’t explain to her what it was like, with Kala. How knowing he had backup changed everything. Kala trusted him with her past, even the unsavory bits, and while she wasn’t a cold-hearted killer like some women he knew, she was on board with eventually putting Joker down like the mad dog he was. Always assuming the sorry fuck didn’t die in the hospital, or Harley didn’t swing back by to finish the job.

He heard a note of sorrow in Donna’s voice as she said, “I want this to work out for you both, Jay. I really do. I’d love to see you happy on a regular basis. But we know each other. You’ve always shot yourself in the foot when things get too good. So who’s gonna be there to pick up the pieces for Kala, when you pull this same old crap on her and break her heart?”

That was going way too far, and Jay bared his teeth in a vicious grin. “Probably Dick.” And immediately hoped that Kala wasn’t listening to him right now. Then again, she hadn’t shown up to slap him across the ocean, so probably she hadn’t heard any of it.

Donna growled something in Greek, and hung up abruptly. At least he could count that as a win.

 

 

Kala was in even more of a hurry than usual, arriving only minutes before she would’ve been late, and she showed up to wonderful news. This venue had a major water leak that had rendered the dressing rooms unusable. The show must go on, however, and she rolled her eyes when Derek started to demand a separate room for her to change. “It doesn’t matter, the boys have seen me in underwear before,” she said, cutting him off. “We’ve changed in the van before, sharing the green room isn’t that big a deal.”

Derek scowled, and Kala rolled her eyes, whipping her t-shirt off as she walked past him. The venue manager looked about ready to fall over in shock, despite the fact that she was wearing a tank top underneath, and her band of boys just laughed as they all piled into the green room. There was no time for conversation, the opening act was having issues, and KLK needed to be on stage as soon as possible. Kala paid no attention to the boys stripping down, just like they didn’t so much as glance at her shrugging clothes off and shimmying into costume.

Then it was out and under the lights, calling out a welcome to the crowd and hearing them roar her name. She sang with all of her heart, and scrambled through the three costume changes that the boys didn’t have to deal with. The timing on the dance moves was still off, to Kala’s mind, though no one else had complained yet. She still felt Sebast’s absence like a ghost on the stage, even after weeks of being the sole singer. No, it had been more than a month now, and she was just counting down until their holiday break, trying to survive the tour schedule instead of reveling in it.

The crowd used to be a giant battery, juicing her up just like the sun, but now the polarity was reversed. Kala felt so drained that she almost stumbled coming off the stage at the end of the last set. Ned grabbed her shoulders as she tottered, and she leaned against him, wanting to sob. If she closed her eyes in the middle of certain songs, she could feel Sebast’s arms around her, hear his voice joined to her own in perfect peerless harmony, and God she missed him so much. This job had always been work in ways most people understood, but when Sebast was here it was fun. It was almost a game. Now … now she felt like Sisyphus rolling the boulder uphill every night, never quite cresting the top, and having to start all over from the bottom in each new city.

“Kala, you all right?” Ned asked her, and she looked up at him. Earnest, goofy Ned, who looked the part of his Skellington nickname but who was the walking definition of Southern charm once you got to know him. Her throat closed at the concern in his eyes, and Kala just nodded. Ned set her back on her feet, and she made it the rest of the way to the green room gratefully.

Insulated from the crowd, Kala stripped off her boots first and let them fall with a thud. For once, she’d let the roadies handle things, she was exhausted. At least she was off tomorrow. Kala was moving slowly, not caring about the other three in the room, just peeling her sweat-soaked costume off to exchange it for comfy clothes.

“Holy shit,” Robb said, sounding startled, almost scared. Kala looked up, and saw him staring at her with a horrified expression. “Kala, what happened?”

She turned to the mirror, and saw her reflection. Standing in her bra and panties, the huge bruise on her belly was a livid yellow-green against her pale skin. For a moment, Kala blinked at it, not remembering.

No, wait. Last night she’d gone on patrol with Jay, trying to blow off steam after he’d spent so much time making sure the kids were situated. He was nervous as hell for them all, patrolling the neighborhoods where they were going to stay, and a night of simply beating up muggers and dealers had been the only way for him to relax.

The point was, she’d gotten in too late for a sunbath. Kala had fallen into the hotel bed like a stone, and slept so heavily she’d almost been late to the venue – Derek had even left without her, not realizing she was still in her room. He’d at least gotten used to her going wherever she pleased once she wasn’t on the tour’s time. But the point was, she’d forgotten to open the room’s drapes, so she hadn’t soaked up any sunlight since patrol.

And the body armor had done its job, so had her invulnerability, but Kala wasn’t quite invulnerable enough to walk away from a car crash unscathed. Especially not when she was the one the car had crashed into. She’d caught the stolen vehicle with her hands first, but had underestimated its speed, and ended up taking the front grill to her gut in a stunning impact before she could push back and bring it to a halt. It had hurt, at the time, and Jay had looked at her worriedly. Other than some soreness, she hadn’t felt too injured, and patrol was the only thing that felt right outside of Jay’s bedroom these days. She hadn’t wanted to stop to check the damage. It wasn’t permanent, so they kept on.

Now they were all looking at her, Morgan giving a low whistle of surprise, and Ned flinching. Kala looked at their horrified faces, and thought for one wild second about telling them the truth. Oh, that? I was stopping a carjacking and got hit by a Buick. It’s fine. Anything short of a tank isn’t a problem, it’ll be gone by tomorrow. Kala laughed, a little crazily, at the look that would get her.

“Are you okay?” Morgan asked, stepping closer.

“Guys, it’s fine,” she said, still laughing. And concocting a cover story as quickly as she could. Bullshit on short notice wasn’t her forte, so she used as much truth as she could. “I’m dating my martial arts instructor, remember? Sparring looks worse than it is.”

“Sparring?” Robb squeaked.

“And he, what, kicks you? In the gut?!” Ned demanded. From the sour look on his face, Ned had definite opinions on the kind of man who’d hit a woman.

Kala sighed and rolled her eyes. “Guys. He’s my trainer. I didn’t get a blue belt for polishing my nails. I’ve kicked his ass, he’s kicked mine, that’s what sparring is.”

“That looks really bad, though,” Morgan said, still worried.

Kala laughed. “You should see him. He’s kicked me in the belly, I’ve kicked him in the balls. He’s punched me in the face, I’ve broken his nose. He’s choked me out, and I’ve bounced him off a wall. All’s fair in love and war, and we’re a rather active couple.”

“You sure you know which one this is?” Ned said.

Robb added, “You know you’re on tour, right? Like if you show up with a black eye, Derek’ll have an aneurysm.”

“Ice and makeup will take care of a black eye,” Kala said coldly. “Derek’s half the reason I need the stress relief of fighting. He can kiss my ass.”

Morgan moved toward her, still frowning. “Wait, did you say he choked you out?”

Dude.” Robb’s voice dropped an octave as he ran that sentence back through his mind. God, these sheltered boys!

Kala fought for patience. “Look, if he went easy on me – if he let me win – I’d kick his ass even harder. That’s part of being trainer and student. I wouldn’t respect him if he didn’t play for keeps.”

That’s playing?!? He choked you out!” Ned exclaimed.

“Yeah, that’s playing. You should see what we could do if we weren’t playing. He’s good at this, you guys. Where he comes from, it’s not a game.” Kala looked at them all solemnly, thinking that as much as she loved them, they wouldn’t last ten minutes in the Bowery.

“You’re not from there, though,” Robb pointed out. “Also, you’re his girlfriend and he’s beating the crap outta you?”

“Trust me, the smack-down is mutual,” Kala said with a smirk. “Shit, he wasn’t even interested in me until I broke his nose. He thought I was just some dumb pretty little thing who shouldn’t be let off the leash in big, bad Gotham. I showed him otherwise real quick.” And all the while, she remembered that if this – the cover story she’d thought would mollify them – was freaking them out, no way could they handle the truth. Jay hadn’t done this to her, a car had, and the thug driving it wouldn’t have stopped if she’d gone under the wheels. They didn’t have the slightest clue what she really did when she wasn’t answering her phone.

Ned rubbed his face with a heavy sigh. “Kala … if this guy was hitting you for real, you’d tell us, right? ‘Cause we’d beat the shit outta him, no matter what color belt he has.”

She snorted a laugh. “No, I wouldn’t, but you’re sweet. If he was hitting me for real I’d put his ass in the hospital, no help needed. You think for one second I’d put up with that bullshit? Not fuckin’ likely. You’ve met my mom.” And even as she said it, she thought of Harley, who was a damn good fighter on her own but who had always let Joker beat her down.

Until recently. Every cornered animal turns to bite, eventually. She let her smile show more teeth than usual, the hard bright grin that some of Gotham’s slimiest saw from the Blur. “It’s fine, guys. I zigged when I should’ve zagged, that’s all. And trust me, it looks much worse than it is. I don’t even feel it.”

“I always knew you were hardcore, but damn,” Robb finally said, impressed.

Ned just shook his head. “I wouldn’t date someone who punched me in the face, but hey, you do you. As long as you’re happy.”

“I am,” Kala said, and despite the long hours and sleepless nights, the exhaustion and the injuries, despite the way she had to sneak around, she was happy.

 

 

Dick checked his phone when he came in from patrol, and saw that he had a voicemail. From Donna. He sighed, and decided to listen to it after he had a shower and something to eat. Tonight’s patrol had left him feeling wrung out.

At least, on the way to shower, he remembered to sweep his uniform off dramatically and do a little bump and grind routine in his underwear, just in case Babs was watching. The thought of her laughing at him lightened his mood considerably, and by the time he was showered and pouring a bowl of cereal, he felt good enough to listen to Donna’s voicemail. He pressed play while getting the milk from the fridge.

“Your brother is an asshole,” she began, and Dick almost dropped the milk. Donna rarely swore, and when she did, he paid attention. “He’s also right, I think, and I hate that more than all the trolling I put up with to drag some explanations out of him. I was wrong about Kala. I owe her an apology, but now I have to figure out how to give it to her without – what was Jay’s oh-so-charming phrase? Oh, yes. How to give it to her without getting yeeted into the sun. I didn’t know yeet was a word. It sounds like the past tense should be yote. At least this time they created a new word instead of changing what one means. Slay doesn’t mean fashion where I come from. And even if I’m stuck in a desert I won’t be able to complain about being thirsty anymore.”

Dick laughed, shaking his head. They usually left each long voicemails, the modern-day equivalent of letters from a friend, and Donna’s sense of humor never failed to charm him.

She continued, “Anyway, call me when you get in. Yes, even if it’s late. Yes, even if you think I’m asleep. Jay and I … we thrashed some things out, and you know there’s stuff connected to that time period that still gives me chills. It’s not Jay’s fault, but talking about the past with him just brings all of it up. And you know, hearing your voice makes things better. Might even keep the nightmares away.”

A pause, and Donna sighed. “I’d say try not to do anything too dangerous tonight, but one, by the time you get this you’ll be home again. And two, dangerous is what we do. Call me, Dick. Love you.”

He saved the voicemail – at some point he’d have to sample her line calling Jay an asshole and possibly use it as the notification sound for messages from Jay – and idly spun the phone on top of the table. That had gone quite a bit better than expected. If Donna could patch things up with Kala, even better.

After all, Donna usually came to visit over Christmas.

Smiling at the thought, Dick picked up the phone to call her back and get all the details.

 

 

Heat, stuffy closeness, immobility, pain – oh, pain calling in from everywhere, like a radio station clearing all its lines before a big giveaway and then reopening, a ring here from the ribs and then the hands ringing in, old dull aches and new sharp pains, and then the whole switchboard lights up, hello agony calling!, bright and hard and fierce all through his face, his head thundering with pain, a maddening shrill buzz in his ears, even his eyes hurt, pain pain pain all through him…

He tries to twist against the pain, tries to groan around the violation of the tube down his throat, scraping his larynx, pushing air into him, and he tries to fight it all but nothing works, and then noise resolves into voices and then

hush

wait

something cool in his arm, in his veins, blooming warm and lazy like a summer evening with the wind blowing just right, taking away the stink of Gotham, softly, quietly, he drifts away.

Some time later, hours or minutes, he wakes again. There’s pain, but there’s also the blissful dreamy floating feeling that he recognizes from previous hospital visits: good old morphine. Sweet dreams are made of this, who is he to disagree?

He’s had morphine before, usually after a run-in with Batsy. It’s gonna be hell, if they’ve got him on an IV drip of straight-up morphine. That Goth goody-two-shoes must’ve really banged him up this time. Another body cast. Maybe the Bat will sign it this time – he never has before, and that just hurts, you know? Friends should always sign your cast.

Wait.

Not Batsy.

He has to chase each thought, each fragmented memory, down and corner it, capture it, pin it down and drop it into a big glass jar of cognition. The scattered fragments flutter away from him, maddeningly slow, but his pursuit is slow too. The drugs do that, and the haze of pain that the drugs exist to blanket.

When he has them all at last, he sees the truth and begins to tremble with rage. As much as he can, in his present trussed-up state. Not Batsy. Harley.

He shakes and shivers, teeth grinding, sharp new pain in his jaw, his cheek, something tearing, a nurse comes in and hits the morphine pump and he slides away again, wafted off into dreamland with an extra dose of drugs.

Dreaming of Harley, sweet Harley, cotton-candy pink and baby blue, aww what a sweetheart, he’d like to carve her heart out and eat in front of her, red and dripping. No, too quick, too garish. The Vikings supposedly did something nifty, removing ribs and laying out the lungs like wings, yes, that’s it, his Harley turned into an angel, wings pink and glistening as she gasps to breathe and can’t with her lungs on the wrong side of her skin. That’s nice, an image to fall asleep to.

Time passed. Joker woke again, and this time he knew who he was, where he was, and why he was there. This time the shock of betrayal didn’t send him into a frothing rage. He remembered his dream of Harley as a bloody angel and thought at first that he did that to her – but no, not yet, it was just a dream.

A prophetic dream. He would make sure of it.

With the vent tube out, he could concentrate; it was hard to think with some clunky piece of plastic rammed down his throat. He was wise enough to sham sleep, and experienced enough at this that not even a brisk sternal rub would get a reaction. Joker knew how to play this game, and he had to keep them all thinking he was one step above a turnip that could bleed, while actually marshaling his strength for the inevitable escape.

His mind roved back over the memories he gathered, examining the unfortunate circumstances that landed him here.

He miscalculated, that was all. Harley existed to be his sidekick, and the kick part of that wasn’t an accident. She grounded him, absorbing excess voltage that might fry his brains; she supported him, holding up under his heels. She wasn’t really real, the way most people weren’t real, just walk-ons in the great chaotic open-air theater of life, but Harley had a recurring role. He favored her with that, and look what she did to him.

Shooting the mutt was a mistake. Even the greatest artists made mistakes occasionally. Botticelli’s Venus had swollen feet and a swan’s neck; a thousand years of paintings and sculptures showed Moses with horns thanks to Saint Jerome’s poor translation skills; and even Michelangelo’s David was missing a certain muscle in his shoulder, thanks to a flaw in the marble.

Michelangelo couldn’t carve or paint women to save his life, either, they all looked like his body-builder models with bad boob jobs, but that was beside the point. His masterpiece David was flawed because the marble was flawed. No help for that. And Joker’s own masterpieces were flawed because he too started with flawed materials.

The zombie bird? Ah, no matter what you did to him, he still found a way to believe in hope and justice and love. So cute. He was basically a Cocker Spaniel with opposable thumbs and a few more neuroses. Useless. The kid couldn’t learn, he was stuck in the same mentality old Batsy had ground into him. Flawed material.

And Harley, oh Harley, she was his David. So damn close to perfect, except for that teeny-weeny little imperfection. That she could love something, anything, more than him, that was her tragic weakness. She really did love those hyenas. God, a cheap joke, laughing hyenas as pets. Ugly beasts, with no sense of comedic timing, but they’d been useful in their way. He’d let himself see Harley as better than she was, and in trying to pare away all the useless parts and make her perfect, he’d accidentally cut too deep.

Now she was marred. Defective. He could use her maybe one last time, fold her up and discard her once he was done.

First, though, he had to get her back.

Actually, first he had to get out of the hospital.

Hell was an itchy nose, and both hands bound in plaster.

Joker found he couldn’t even turn his head; when he tried, points of pain pressed dully into his temples. Not his first skull fracture, he recognized external fixation pins. So his head was locked into a halo that kept his neck and head carefully aligned. They weren’t sure of his spine, maybe, and that wasn’t too much of a surprise.

Joker lay still, and burrowed down deep in his own mind to get away from the pain and the itch and the nagging boredom. The last was the worst, not being able to do anything, knowing he couldn’t even have a bit of fun with the nurses or the police guards that had to be stationed outside his room. For an escape to work, he had to pretend to be comatose as long as possible.

Luckily he healed quickly. Hell, if he hadn’t, if he’d been the kind of person to languish in long, miserable convalescence, he’d never get anything done! Batsy certainly sent him to the hospital enough. Even Dead Hood had done his fair share.

But Harley had booked him in this time. He had to get Harley.

She could only be one of two places: back in Arkham, or with the veggie. Harley hadn’t had an original thought in her head since she’d graduated, so he didn’t worry about her haring off somewhere. It all depended on how bad he’d hurt her (not that badly, he suspected, she taken him completely by surprise) and how kooky she was when it was over. If the mutt lived, she’d be with dear Pammy, who could be relied upon for tender nursing care. At least, as long as she only had to care for plants, dumb broads, and dumber animals.

If the hyena was dead – and Joker was a pretty good shot, that had to be the likeliest outcome – Harley had probably gone off the rails and landed back in Arkham. That’d be best, he could find her there most easily. Breaking her out was relatively easy, too.

If she was with good old Dr. Isley, well, things could get hairy. Joker’s memories of the fight were still fragmented, but it had been something. There’d been a chair smashed over his head, and a lot of punching and kicking and yelling. Not the usual freaked-out flailing he’d mostly broken her of trying, either. A real determined assault. As the damn skull fracture attested.

Not even Harley – who seemed determined to believe everything he told her even when it directly contradicted what he was doing at the same moment – would believe he’d come back wanting to apologize, kiss and make up, after she’d done all that.

So simply showing up on the doorstep with roses wasn’t an option. And if Queen Green was gonna make a serious move on his girl, now would be the time to do it. He could just imagine all the crap Pammy was spouting to her. Half of it ripped right off the queer feminist pamphlets she’d undoubtedly passed out back in college. She’d be quoting the statistics on domestic violence and trying to dramatize shooting the hyena as some Major Turning Point. Which was ridiculous, he was the one who got the damn things for her, technically they were his hyenas too. And Joker never let anything of his bite the hand that fed it.

Not more than once, anyway.

So he’d have to pretend to be mad at her, and then pretend to reconcile. A real soap opera, pull out all the stops, maybe break out some tears. Oh, yeah, that’d be perfect, play the martyr, tell her she deserved better, that he’d leave her alone but he just wanted to apologize. Sniffle some trite crap about how she was the only one who’d ever understood him, but he’d destroyed that, just like he destroyed everything. Real breakthrough kinda stuff.

Harley would eat it up like her own hyenas crunching away at marrow bones. The clinician in her couldn’t resist, she’d want to support him, work with him, even if she didn’t want to be with him. He could reel her in with that, make her think her original goal from way back when was finally coming close to fruition, and then wham, once he had her trust he could explain to her, patiently and carefully over several days, why it was a bad idea to betray him.

If the hyena had lived, he’d feed the thing to her before he was done. One limb at a time, so she could watch it whimper while he poured pureed hyena hams down an NG tube just like the one he could feel running from his own nose, down the back of his throat, to his belly. He’d show her why defying him was a very bad idea indeed.

The room door opened, and Joker retreated further into the simulacrum of sleep. He sensed, as if from a distance, a nurse moving around the bed, fiddling with monitors, then felt the tube in his nose slightly jostled, the oxygen mask over his face moved for a moment. Checking everything assiduously, what a real Florence Nightingale this one was, and Joker lay limp and unresponsive throughout.

“Lucky bastard,” the nurse muttered under her breath. Resentfully.

So she hated him. Most ordinary people did. Sheep probably hated the shepherds that sheared them and stole away their lambs, but they were sheep . They were made to be fleeced, eaten, used up somehow. Given their ‘freedom’ they’d just get eaten by wolves or coyotes, or run their stupid selves over a cliff panicking from thunder. Joker couldn’t pity them. They weren’t quite real enough, just like people, a sea of stupid stunned faces with no more comprehension of what he really was than a sheep had of nuclear physics.

He could respect the nurse’s professionalism despite the venom in her voice. Dedication, he always admired dedication, most people weren’t willing to follow through on anything these days. Not even the dead bird could commit to an aesthetic! He’d given up killing for a pretty girl.

Joker could’ve told him, the best girls liked you better when you killed. They all liked danger, some of them were just better at pretending they didn’t.

The nurse gave him another injection, not morphine this time, but he felt the cool rush of fluid in the IV. Antibiotics, maybe. Joker let his eyes slide partially open, just in time to catch a glimpse of green scrubs and brown hair. He might let that one live, when it came time to break out.

He’d endured enough from other nurses. Some of them took a special delight in having the city’s most feared villain supposedly helpless under their hands. One middle-aged woman had spat in his face, but otherwise taken decent care of him; an enterprising young man had ‘forgotten’ the anesthetic during a procedure, leaving Joker only paralyzed while wounds were debrided. What a laugh that was! He’d had many laughs, later on, once he escaped from Arkham and tracked down that so-thoughtful young fellow. Of course, as a health care professional the nurse kept himself in excellent condition, so to really give him the empathetic experience Joker had needed to injure him first, let the wounds get nicely infected, then show him how debridement felt without even an ibuprofen to dull the pain.

He was a strong, healthy young man. He’d lasted almost two weeks. In retrospect, treating the runaway gangrene with household bleach probably wasn’t a medically sound decision. But it’d been fun! And educational!

For Joker, anyway.

The current nurse left the room, left him alone, and Joker set his mind back to work on his main problem: how to settle the score with Harley. No matter what she did or how amusing she was, he couldn’t let this stand. The rest of Gotham’s masked community would never let him live it down. No, Harley had to pay, and it had to be something big.

His head ached – not surprising, given the whole skull fracture and probable brain surgery – and Joker found that he couldn’t concentrate very well. Never mind, he expected those symptoms to abate soon. Maybe by tomorrow. Not once did he imagine that he’d have any serious, lasting injuries. Joker never doubted that he would return to perfect health, no matter what happened to him.

After all, he’d made a deal.

Chapter Text

Just an ordinary Tuesday night in Gotham … which for Jay meant busting a jewelry store robbery in progress, assisted by Nightwing. Baby Bird was off doing Titans stuff this evening, and Jay decided what the hell, he’d fill in. Even this kind of small-potatoes crap was at least honest work. And running with Dickie-Bird was fun.

It surprised him to realize that he didn’t look forward to working solo. Kala had gone and spoiled him, that was all. Jay spent years relying only on himself, watching his own back, and a few months of really well balanced teamwork – plus close air support with some heavy-duty firepower – had seriously upped his standards. Weird, to find himself actually wanting teamwork.

Babs had given them the coordinates for the alarm, and he and Dick made short work of the four robbers. “That was almost too easy,” Dick said, leaning the last man against their own getaway car.

Of course, right then was the moment a bullet shattered the glass of the car window, and they both had to dive for cover right beside their cowering, cussing captives. Jay added a few choice words of his own. “Dammit, Wing, never say shit like that! It tempts fate!”

“What’s this?” Dick asked, peeking around the corner of the bumper.

Jay, in the bulletproof helmet, popped his head up for a second to peer through the crazed glass. The car parked in the street was a big, sturdy sedan … painted half black, half white. “Shit, it’s Dent’s boys,” he said.

One of the trussed jewel thieves started kicking the guy closest to him. “You said they didn’t pay up to Two-Face! You said it was safe!”

Ow! They didn’t pay up last week!” the other guy cried.

Jay smacked both of them, and lobbed a flash-bang at the car. “Shut up, you assholes, at least since we’re here tonight, you get to live. Now be quiet and let Daddy work.”

Since when Two-Face is running protection rackets this far uptown?” Dick said, readying his sticks. The flash-bang grenade went off, momentarily blinding the goons in the car, and he and Jay both rushed out to deal with them.

Not that hard, these were recent recruits, without much real training. They were street-smart, trusting in weapons, and once Jay had kicked the gun out of the first one’s grip and broken the wrist of the second, it was pretty much over for them. Dick got his two, the electrified escrima sticks working like stun-guns to immobilize them. It was all over in minutes, Jay taking an opportunity to put his boot in for the kids’ sake. Dick frowned about it, but said nothing – he’d heard about the whole situation.

As they secured the scene and heard sirens approaching, Jay said, “We ought to think about throwing Harvey in jail, too. He’s gonna be gunning for me shortly.”

Dick nodded as they both shot grapnels to the nearest roof to wait for the police. “B is gathering intel. We’ve got to get enough evidence, or catch him red-handed. Dent knows the system too well, and he can afford good lawyers.”

Shithead,” Jay grumbled. “He’s the one who was after that pack of kids I was protecting. We’ve got them taken care of, but he’ll have to do something about me or lose face. That won’t end well for him.”

Sighing, Dick sat down on the parapet. They needed to keep an eye on this one until the cops arrived, in case Dent had sent more reinforcements. “I swear sometimes it’s like playing whack-a-mole with the criminals. Every time we knock one down, another pops up.”

Jay sat beside him. “See, you shoulda let me kill Mask and Joker and take over as Gotham’s kingpin. I coulda knocked down every one of them that came after me.”

Dick glanced at him, scowling, but saw Jay’s smirk and just scoffed. “Yeah, that’d all be great until all the mob families got together and ponied up enough cash to afford Deadshot or Deathstroke to take you out.”

That gave him a few seconds pause. “Huh. I wonder what the going rate is for a hit on me. Gotta be expensive, people know I’m Bat-trained.”

Only you would take that calmly,” Dick said. And then, with a snort of laughter, “You’ve got Talia’s number, call her and ask.”

Jay scoffed at that. “Yeah, right, she probably killed that number two minutes after the last time I called. We didn’t exactly hang up on good terms, Dickie-Bird.”

Yeah, well, I can’t help but be glad about that. I’m much happier with you completely out of her orbit. You know I can’t stand Talia, never could. Even so, I’m guess we have to thank her for you being alive.” Dick leaned forward a little, seeing a splash of red and blue lights further up the street. “I’m also very glad she didn’t get a chance to figure out what K is or why she was at the Manor.”

Me too,” Jay said, his back prickling at the thought. Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter were Bat-problems who could quickly become everyone’s problems. The thought of them knowing anything about the Supers, having any inkling about the kind of power and knowledge stored in the Fortress of Solitude, damn near gave him hives.

You were pretty freaked out, that day,” Dick mused. “You were still kinda iffy about K then, but you went right into protective mode. Something you need to talk about with your lost years?”

For a moment, Jay thought about telling Dick the whole truth. Coming back, plotting to kill Batman, training as an assassin, falling into bed with Talia, finding the file that damn near made him kill her … but no. Not Dick. He’d go completely bonkers, drag Jay to the nearest shrink to get his head examined. And probably rant and rave until Bruce overheard something damning. Which, Jay had a vested interest in Bruce not finding out that particular little detail. He might be in bed with Selina on any given night, but if Bruce found out about Jay and Talia, he’d go ballistic, even worse than Dick.

Kala knew. That was enough. “It doesn’t have anything to do with my time in murder college,” Jay said easily. “Do you want Ra’s to have any idea there are half-Kryptonian kids running around? Best case scenario, he decides to wipe out the Supers before they can breed more. Worst case, he decides he wants an heir with powers.”

Dick actually choked at that. “Oh God, I’m gonna hurl! Jay, why would even say that?! Eww!”

Trust me, I wanna puke too,” he said, giving a shudder of horror. “I know Superman, too, remember? I don’t think Talia would be down for that either, but you know Daddy tends to get what Daddy wants. The good news is, Ra’s is probably too xenophobic for that. He doesn’t care about aliens as long as they stay out of his way.”

Still wincing, Dick looked down at the street below, where the cops were trussing up Dent’s men and the jewel thieves. “Thank you for that horrifying mental image. I need brain bleach now. I have to think of something cute, like puppies.”

It was Jay’s turn to snort. “Puppies. When I need brain bleach, I think of K in that fancy dress I bought her. Cuter than a fruit bat at the zoo.”

Dick laughed. “Yeah, you won that one. The two of you are pretty damn cute.”

Knock it off, I’m not down with that saccharine shit,” Jay replied immediately. Never mind that he’d just called K cute – being sarcastic about it, but still. What he couldn’t stand was the implication that he and Kala together were cute. There was nothing cutesy about him, nothing cutesy about their relationship either.

Instead of shying off the topic, Dick turned to look at him with a serious expression. “Jay … get real for a minute, would you?”

I’m the realest thing in this town, D,” Jay shot back, bristling.

And then he said it, of course he did, Dick loved everyone, he probably even told Bruce he loved him, and The Night probably didn’t explode into a thousand socially-awkward bats when he did. Dick looked squarely at Jay and said, “You don’t have to be a highly-trained detective to see that you and K are in love.”

Jay’s gut roiled, and he fought the urge to punch Dick right in his pretty face. Dick must’ve seen the change in his body language, because he tensed a little in alarm. But Jay didn’t swing, because Dick couldn’t fathom a world in which love was dangerous. “Listen to me very carefully, Nightwing,” he ground out through clenched teeth. “There’s a goddamn reason I don’t use that word. And I don’t want anyone else using it about me, either.”

I know you think you’re too tough…” Dick began.

Oh fuck off, I’m not that dumb,” Jay spat.

Then what is it?” Dick asked. “Help me understand here, Jay, you’re making a big deal out of something that doesn’t have to be.”

He wouldn’t let go, that was the thing. Dick was a bulldog when he thought he could help somebody. Never mind whether they wanted his help, or not. So Jay growled, “Every time I think it might apply, the other person royally fucks me over, starting with my shitty excuse for a bio mom and running right up to now. So shut your fucking mouth, or I’ll shut it for you, okay? You are not jinxing this for me when something’s finally going right in my life. I won’t kill you, but I’ll damn sure put a bullet scar in that perfect butt of yours. Try telling your revolving-door of women it’s another dimple.”

Dick paused, thoughtful. “Threats and compliments? You’re deflecting hard , Jaybird. Do you really believe saying it will jinx things? I didn’t realize you were so superstitious.”

Dude, I came back from being damn near dead. I’m only able to talk and remember my own goddamn name because of a fucking Lazarus Pit that healed catastrophic fucking brain damage. Oh, and fixed a bunch of other shit wrong with me, too, I never would’ve been this tall or this broad with all the times I went hungry as a kid. That same Pit is why one of our biggest bad guys is still fucking around with the world despite being like seven hundred years old, and having died a couple dozen times. And you’re calling me superstitious? Fuck off, D.”

Okay, okay, that’s fair,” Dick said, backpedaling from his vehemence. “Still…”

You don’t get it,” Jay snapped. “It’s better to show that than tell it. Every time, once it gets said, everything goes to hell.”

For a moment, he really thought Dick would just leave it alone. His brows were furrowed under the Nightwing domino, and he looked like he’d happily punch whoever had hurt Jay. But then he asked, “Jay … what really happened with Troia, for you to be like this?”

And of course, he laughed, remembering the cops ten stories below at the last minute and stifling it just enough. No way was he gonna tell Dick about Donna. There couldn’t be a worse way to find out your best friend had a long-standing desperately-hidden crush on you. Plus, he wouldn’t do that to Donna. She had her issues, but it was the Todd luck that had screwed them over. She hadn’t hurt him on purpose. And he’d hurt her, too.

Get real, D. You think Troia was the first woman I ever slept with or something?” he retorted, trying to lead him off the mark.

Dick just frowned. “I didn’t think it got that deep with Ravager.”

Jay laughed; this was turning into a rehash of his conversation with Donna. At least it meant that Donna hadn’t turned around and told Dick everything. It did bother him, a lot , that suddenly everyone was nosing around in his love life and prodding around in the past. It felt like everyone wanted to be his shrink, and Jay had zero interest in that.

Besides, Rose ghosting him had stung a little, but Rose hadn’t let it get that deep. She was just as shy of being burned as he was. With her father, he wasn’t surprised. Safer not to care about anyone that much. To Dick, he said, “It wasn’t, and Ravager wasn’t the first either. Dude, there’s whole years of my life you know nothing about.”

Of course, that still didn’t put him off. “Someone in the League of Shadows? Please tell me you didn’t fall in love with Cheshire or something, she’s got a thing for heroes. And she really did a number on Arsenal’s head.”

Shit, shit, shit! Jay’s spine turned to ice at the realization of how close he was to giving away the exact thing he didn’t want Dick to know. Too many parallels, too many secrets, and he had to switch it up quick. “Hell no, not Chesh, I never even met her. For all you know it coulda been a civilian. Doesn’t have to be a woman, either. You’re not the only bisexual in the Batcave, bro.”

Dick stared at him for a moment, and then said in a quiet voice. “Oh no. It wasn’t me, was it?”

Jay blinked; he hadn’t realized that Dick actually knew about the stupid schoolboy crush. Never mind the little hints here and there, that was just Dick being comforting. Not to mention, Dick had never betrayed him, but of course he’d think it was his fault that Jay was allergic to the L-word. He was as bad as Bruce for guilt. It was all so absurd, Jay threw his head back and laughed out loud.

Immediately the cops below swung their flashlights up, and Dick muttered something in Romany as they both dove away from the edge. Jay couldn’t stop laughing even as they ran to the next roof, jumped over, and made a hard turn. At least the climb to the next roof needed enough oxygen that he had to stop snickering like an idiot.

It figured he’d end up talking to Dick about this now. Once they got stopped again, he turned with a shrug. “Okay, sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh in your face. It’s just … one, you never did anything out of line at all. I never even thought you knew. And two, that wasn’t anything serious. It was just a puppy crush.”

Okay,” Dick said, smiling a little ruefully. “I just … I knew, and I also knew it was a bad idea for a lot of reasons, starting with how young you were and mostly being how crazy my life always is. Also I think B would’ve had an aneurysm.”

B could’ve gotten over it,” Jay said, shaking his head. “I had a lot of crushes on a lot of people, as a kid. Classic street kid, wanting to belong to something. You wouldn’t have been a bad choice.”

Dick shrugged. “I’m not exactly great at relationships either. I mean, I really deep-sixed that with Oracle, and messed things up with Starfire in the process. I’ve blown up almost every relationship I’ve been in. The only thing that lasts is family.”

And that’s why B would freak out. He sees us both as his sons. He’d have to learn to play the banjo.” He shrugged again. Awkward as this was, it was better than the conversation had been aimed to begin with. “I never saw you as a brother, more brother in arms. Hell, I never had brothers or sisters or anything. I get why you call it family – hell, I do it too – but it was different with you. Kinda like you never saw O as a sister.”

Oh, I knew exactly how I saw O the day I met her,” Dick admitted. “She hit me like all of puberty all at once.”

Jay grinned at him then. “Yeah, she kinda hit me the same way. O is still trouble, I just know now I can’t handle anyone that much smarter than me.”

I’m gonna tell K you said that,” Dick teased.

Jay cuffed at his shoulder. “Don’t be an ass. I bet K thinks the same thing of O. God bless Canary, she’s the only one with the courage.”

And in his ear, he heard an amused digital voice say, “Considering that Blur flirted with me within fifteen minutes of meeting me? I’m sure. At least she was a lot smoother than offering me the top bunk.”

I was thirteen, O, I didn’t have time to learn smooth,” Jay laughed.

Dick had heard that too, and rolled his eyes. “At least I had the sense to keep my mouth shut.”

Yes, you did,” Babs agreed. “You were unsubtle in your own way, though. I know perfectly well that wasn’t a Batarang jammed against my leg when we were locked in that safe together.”

Jay couldn’t help himself, he clutched his sides and wheezed at the expression on Dick’s face. “You know what, I had a gorgeous redhead in my lap practically. I don’t think there’s any man who wouldn’t rise to the occasion, then or now.”

I’ll take that as the compliment it is,” Babs laughed at both of them. “Now get back to work – and lay off the personal info in the field, children.”

We didn’t have our comms on, and there’s no one else up here,” Jay complained, but he understood her point. If someone had been listening, that was a lot of juicy gossip.

The comms are always on,” Dick said, waggling his eyebrows. “Mother has to keep an eye and an ear on her children. Mother knows best.”

Keep calling me Mother, I’ll make you buy the banjo,” Babs retorted, and Jay started snickering again. “Seriously, though. You boys need to have your heart-to-hearts at the bunker or the Roost or something, please. You did call each other by nicknames that have your real names in them.”

Jay thought back over the conversation, and winced. He’d said ‘Dickie-Bird’ first, but Dick had come back with ‘Jaybird’. “Yeah, okay, point taken. Not like we get a lot of quality time anywhere else, y’know.”

So make time. It’s what family does.” Babs signed off then, and Dick shook his head.

We’ll have plenty of quality time over the holidays,” Dick said with a slight smile. “You are coming for Thanksgiving, right? Because I think Alfred might have you kidnapped and taped to a chair if you don’t show.”

Dude, and miss the whole Manor spread? Roast turkey, fried turkey, honey-baked ham, twelve side dishes, and four or five pies? Fuck yeah, I’ll be there. If you hadn’t invited me, I’d crash. No matter what the family drama is, I have no shame when it comes to the sideboard.” Jay’s stomach grumbled at the mere thought of it.

Oh, he’s doing pumpkin cheesecake now, too,” Dick chuckled. “I heard through R that Superboy and Blur are gonna be out of state for Thanksgiving. It’ll be just us, unless she can make it over in time for coffee.”

Jay thought about that; he and Kala hadn’t even talked about it yet. They still had a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. But he hadn’t needed to plan around holidays for four years, so he wasn’t used to giving it any thought. The League of Shadows was strictly secular, and his wandering after that had been so disjointed that he only noticed holidays when restaurants were either closed, or packed. Coming home again, for the kind of spread Alfred put on, made his chest ache with yearning.

At last, he sighed. “Much as it would be good if K was there, she’s about worn out with running back and forth. Let her have the day with her family. We’ll save her a plate. Unless, of course, she decides otherwise.”

Dick smiled at him. “You’re a good egg, Jay. I guess we can miss out on having her for Thanksgiving. Alfred invited her for Christmas.”

Jay couldn’t help it, his eyes bugging out a little. “He what ? Jesus fuck on a silver platter, he didn’t even ask me! Oh God, did he ask B ?!”

I doubt it,” Dick chortled. “I imagine he’s gonna work it so that B thinks he’s the one who gave the invitation. Now come on, don’t get squirrelly. Let’s go find some more trouble to get into, okay?”

He shook his head at the blatant manipulation. “Yeah, sure, drop a bomb like that on me. Let’s go find someone’s ass to kick. Dent needs to learn to stay the fuck outta this neighborhood.”

 

 

Other than the ticking of a clock and two sets of breath, the room was quiet. Talia stifled a yawn, her eyelids heavy; she would have liked to simply fall asleep where she lay. Lassitude warmed her to the very marrow, as good lovemaking often did, but she couldn’t sleep. Her own bed was two rooms away.

She sat up, and Adem’s arm around her waist tightened briefly. Talia looked at her lieutenant in the dark, just enough light filtering in to show her his sleepily satisfied expression. “You could stay,” he murmured, and he sounded drowsy.

He wouldn’t be her lieutenant if he was this careless, though, and Talia shook her head. “I think not.”

Adem let her go, and Talia stood up unselfconsciously, retrieving her clothes. He had seen her body in better light than this, knew her curves as well as her scars, but still his gaze lingered on her. “You could, though. You choose not to.”

Talia didn’t pause, dressing with casual ease. “I am too well-trained an assassin to sleep with someone else in the room,” she lied. It was easy to do so; she’d only ever let herself sleep beside one man, and he was thousands of miles away. Likely with a Cat snuggled up to him. There was one other she might have trusted so deeply, but Talia had been wary by then of letting anyone into her heart, knowing her love for a weakness. And so she had lost Jay, too, by never showing him how much he truly meant.

She heard Adem reach for something on the nightstand as she fastened her slacks, and ever alert for treachery, Talia reached for her own gun casually. He was only getting a cigarette, though, and she buckled the revolver around her hips as his lighter scratched a flame to life, and he drew in smoke. Adem looked at her in the red light of the cigarette’s ember, and said quietly, “You don’t trust me.”

That was partly true. She trusted him more than anyone else currently in Libya, and she let herself enjoy his attentions more than she probably should have. He was not a cure for her loneliness, but he kept it at bay for a little while. And bedding him kept him more loyal to her than to her father. At least for now. That did not mean she trusted him completely. She’d learned her lesson on that score years before, when his predecessor thought to use his privileged position to blackmail her.

So she kept her voice warm, almost affectionate, as she replied, “If I didn’t trust you, Adem, you’d be dead.” And Talia smiled as she shrugged into her blouse, not bothering with the bra.

As expected, his eyes followed her breasts, and the threat of death only darkened his gaze with lust. Some men found danger attractive, and Talia knew Adem was of that ilk. The deadlier she was, the more he desired her. Men.

He took another drag off the cigarette, resting his other arm behind his head. “True. We are very useful to each other, aren’t we? And you need me here, in this nest of serpents that might or might not be loyal to your father.”

Talia chuckled, and sat down beside him on the rumpled sheet. “Let’s be honest, shall we? My father likes to think he is an inspired leader, but most of these men are loyal only to their own best interests. They’ll follow anyone who seems likely to win. Right now they think Shiva has the upper hand, and half of them are ready to venerate her as a goddess. They’ll swing right back into line once we resume control of the compound, and remove the obvious dissenters.”

And what do you think I’m loyal to?” Adem asked, with genuine curiosity in his gaze.

A dangerous question, that. Talia plucked the cigarette from his hand, held it aside, and leaned down to kiss him. She closed her eyes to do it, not seeing Adem in her mind’s eye; the taste of menthol and tobacco on his lips helped. At the sudden passion in her kiss, his hand caught her hip with reawakening desire.

Talia pulled away, smiling down at him. “ Your own best interests, of course. You worship neither gods nor demons, Adem. But you know I’ll look out for you, as long as you keep my trust. You also know that if you betray me, I’ll cut your throat without an instant’s hesitation.”

Men always had trouble thinking when they were aroused, and he blinked at her for a second. Then he relaxed into a lazy grin. “You’re ruthless … but I like that about you.”

Good,” Talia said, and stole a drag from the cigarette before handing it back to him. “I’m giving some thought to sending you to Shiva as my inside agent. Do you think you can convince her that you’re dissatisfied in my service? I’d rather not have her take suspicion, and kill you.”

You’d miss me if she did,” he said, almost gloating. “Maybe a second or two of hesitation, after all.”

Talia smiled indulgently, as she once had at a younger man whose pride was sweeter to see. “Perhaps. Don’t make me prove it, hmm?”

No,” he said, his voice husky, the hand on her hip drifting down to the curve of her thigh. “I can fool Shiva. She’s arrogant – that makes it easier. I’ll tell her I’m tired of playing you and your father against one another. That should be easy enough to sell.”

Talia touched his face lightly, keeping her own expression fond and gentle even as a whisper of disquiet spoke in her chest. “We are rather a burden, aren’t we? I can almost pity anyone caught up in our endless games of chess.”

The perks are worth it,” Adem told her, and his eyes brightened with the humor even as he squeezed her thigh. She felt safe then, until he spoke again, more seriously. “You ought to think about getting out, though. Ra’s al Ghul will never let you do as you please.”

Her hand slipped down to his throat. “Your predecessor’s chief mistake was telling me what I should or should not do,” she informed him. “Pray don’t follow in his footsteps, Adem. You’re much too useful to waste.”

Advice isn’t an order,” he told her, appropriately chastened, and Talia caught his hand, lifting it from her thigh so she could rise. But she kissed his knuckles, and pressed her cheek against his palm, as if he meant far more to her than he did.

Until the morning,” she told him softly, and left the room, keeping her expression fond all the way to the door. Only once it was closed behind her did she let the mask fall.

Getting out – as if it were that easy. There was really only one place she could go, and then she’d have to face the possibility of being turned away. She couldn’t even blame them. Anywhere Talia went, her father would follow, and Ra’s al Ghul would stop at nothing to bring his favorite child back into the fold. Somewhere way down in the depths of her soul, Talia howled at the unfairness of it.

The surface of her mind didn’t even hear the cries of anguish. That part of her – the part that remembered being cherished by her father, before she’d grown old enough to have much will of her own – had been wailing fruitlessly for a long time.

Even if she could somehow flee, what of Damian? He was too young to go on the run. And she could not leave him with his grandfather. Talia could barely force herself to leave his side even for missions like this; it would break her heart to leave him forever. Besides, if she parted from Ra’s … he would use Damian to bring her back. In whatever manner would be most effective. She knew that, even as she knew that she could never do such a thing. If she ran, she’d have to bring him, and Damian might slow her down fatally. There was the option of taking him to his father, but that could get extremely complicated.

No, she would never be able to get out. All she could do was make the best of the situation. And try to keep the people she loved safe from all harm.

She stepped into her room, closed the door behind her, and bowed her head where no one could see her. Talia’s life was a series of impossible choices, and only the thought that her father’s ultimate goals were the greater good of the entire planet kept her on course.

Still, it was hard to love a planet. Much easier to love a small boy who had inherited her fondness for drawing, and who despite rigorous training still believed that no real harm could come to him. His faith in her, and in Ra’s, was still unshaken.

As long as Talia had any say in the matter, that last shred of innocence would prevail.

Sighing, she leaned back against the door. Enough maudlin mental wandering. She had to plan an assault on one of the most heavily fortified compounds the League of Shadows maintained. It had many natural defenses, but its crucial weakness was in its staff – which Shiva had already exploited. To turn them back would not be difficult. It would only require sufficient bloodshed and a show of strength.

Talia chuckled dryly. She knew very well how to pretend strength she did not feel. She’d had a lifetime of practice.

 

 

Kala slapped her buzzing phone and groaned. It was too early … but if she wanted to take advantage of the hotel’s breakfast buffet, she had to crawl out of bed and get down there in the next half hour. Sleep … or crispy bacon, greek yogurt, and the selection of fresh fruit you only got in California? Food won.

She brushed her hair, put on the minimum amount of makeup to avoid being asked if she was sick, and got dressed, opting for jeans and a concert t-shirt. The boys had been mollified by her semi-truthful explanation of the bruises on her belly, but they were all watching her closely now. Even a little thing like going to breakfast bare-faced would have them asking after her solicitously. She should’ve been touched by their concern, but frankly, it was just another pain in the ass right now.

Kala left the curtains open through all of it, soaking up as much sun as she could. She missed her mornings with her father, but between the tour schedule and her nights in Gotham, she didn’t even wake up at sunrise anymore.

The holidays were coming, they had a good long break, and then just a few more months ‘til it was over. Back to the garage and the studio, back to a less-hectic life, and the next tour schedule wasn’t going to be anywhere near this insane.

Suddenly she realized that the garage jam sessions were gonna be awkward as hell. Sebast was still in the house. They might be able to patch things up somehow, but living together? That was gonna be painful. And she couldn’t ask him to leave, he’d put down half the money for the place and paid half the bills. He might just ask her to leave; both of them had their parents’ homes to go back to.

Groaning, Kala rode the elevator down, resolving to deal with that later. Right now she just wanted lots of coffee and some food. She was focused on nothing more important than that … until she stepped off the elevator, and heard Robb give a nervous chuckle.

Robb was pretty chill about anything except promotional stuff, usually. The thing that made him really anxious was talking to women. In his own mind, he was much heavier than his actual weight, and he tended to assume that women dismissed him as a fat loser. Add that to some impostor syndrome, thinking he wasn’t really a rock star despite the band’s sales figures, and you got a great recipe for awkwardness, especially around women in the industry. Kala would’ve cheerfully slapped any woman who put him down like that, even though he wasn’t her own type. He was a good guy, and one of her boys besides; he deserved better.

So she bristled, and zeroed in on the sound of his voice, head up and boot-heels striking the tile sharply. No one messed with her boys – Jay had been right, the mama bear gene certainly did breed true.

Kala found Robb standing by the breakfast area in an awkward semi-cringe, and the woman in front of him was certainly gorgeous enough to make any of the guys stammer. Tall – Kala’s own height, or maybe an inch more – with long perfectly blonde hair, and the kind of hourglass figure that only came from hours in the gym or elective surgery. She had a sweet face, though, big blue eyes and a charming smile. Kala noticed her outfit – heels, skirt, a chic blouse – and her makeup – the kind of subtle application that took plenty of practice to achieve – and figured her for some kind of PR hack. She looked like she was all about appearances, shallow and vain. The only odd detail was a small wrapped package she was carrying. Kala paid it no mind; she swept in knowing that she looked like some kind of angry Goth stereotype. And not caring.

Robb looked around at the sound of her boots, as did the blonde. His eyes went wide at the sight of Kala, but the woman looked frightened for a second, then miserable. Still, she didn’t flee, and Robb stepped in front of her, throwing both hands out at Kala in a stop gesture. “Whoa, whoa, stand down, Kala,” he said hurriedly. “It’s all good, this is Jennifer, she’s cool, I just didn’t expect to see her already. Don’t break out the blue belt, just … relax and have some coffee, okay?”

Kala stopped, blinking. And the blonde raised one hand in a tiny wave. “Hi,” she said, sounding just as timid and awkward as Robb. “You must be Robb’s boss. Nice to meet you?”

That made her laugh. This was absolutely not what she had expected to walk into. She’d read the situation completely wrong, and Jay would’ve torn her a new one for being so far off target. Poor girl, too, this was a hell of a reception. “I’m not his boss. I just work here, too. I’m sorry, Jennifer, I didn’t mean to come out on the warpath like that. Sometimes we get people from other labels trying to cause trouble – I haven’t had coffee yet and couldn’t think of another reason why anyone would be dressed so well this early in the morning. I’m Kala, leader of this band of yahoos. Nice to finally meet you.” Only now did she remember Robb talking about meeting his long-distance girlfriend in California. Chagrined, Kala held her hand out, and gave her a welcoming smile.

Jennifer blushed a little at the compliment. “Thanks! It’s no problem, I should’ve called first and everything, but I was so excited to finally meet Robb.” She glanced at him when she said it, and her eyes brightened. Meanwhile he blushed and fidgeted.

Oh God, they’ve both got it so bad, Kala thought, unaware how many people had thought the same looking at her and Jay. “You get to meet the whole crazy crew, looks like.”

Ned chose that moment to stroll over with a plate of bacon and eggs. “Don’t mind Kala. She’s just overprotective. I’m Ned, by the way.”

Ah, but you guys like me that way, Skellington,” Kala retorted, smirking as Ned returned the gesture.

Morgan had followed him, and Jennifer shook each of their hands while Kala hurried off to get some coffee and breakfast. Her boys might very well eat it all, if she wasn’t quick. The rest of them took over the biggest table, and as Kala joined them, Robb was opening his gift. “I would’ve gotten you something, if I’d known,” he was telling Jennifer, smiling shyly.

It’s okay, I just saw it and thought of you,” she replied. Her eyes were really expressive, brimming over with joy and something else. Kala slid in between Morgan and Ned, studying her unobtrusively, and decided that her initial impression was way wrong. In Jennifer’s industry, she had to pay careful attention to appearances, but that didn’t mean it was all she cared about. By the way she behaved around the band, the blonde simply wanted very badly to be liked. That eagerness to please reminded Kala of quite a few people she knew – and she’d seen the same look in the mirror. Didn’t everyone want to be well-regarded?

The gift was a coffee mug, and on the side was a version of the evolution of humans stock image, starting from the silhouette of an ape-like ancestor through Australopithecus to modern man. The last, and therefore most highly evolved, silhouette was of a man playing a guitar. Robb beamed at it, and turned delighted eyes on Jennifer. “That’s awesome !” he told her. “Where’d you find something like this?”

She blushed, and told him the name of the shop, and Kala just sat back to watch the two of them being incredibly cute together. It was nice to see something wholesome and drama-free, and she let herself bask in the high-octane happiness.

Derek came down after a while, and Kala glared at him. If he said one rude word to Jennifer, she’d shut him down right here in public. Let TMZ air that . Never mind anything Marlene had said about giving him a chance, she remembered how he’d acted when he found out what Jennifer did for a living.

He glanced at Kala, and she narrowed her eyes. Try me, bitch. Just try me. Wisely, Derek didn’t, getting a bagel and sitting down with the rest. “You must be Jennifer,” he said. Stiff, but not outright asinine, and from him that was practically a miracle.

Jennifer smiled at him too, and good God, she had dimples . “Yes, I’m sorry I came out early, I just couldn’t wait to meet Robb. I hope I haven’t messed anything up.”

Something about her seemed to strike a chord of courtesy in Derek, and he actually smiled back. “No, it’s no problem. You actually got everyone up and moving in record time. That’s a plus, in this business.”

Jennifer demurred, “I think that was the breakfast buffet, not me.”

Nah, we can eat half-asleep,” Morgan said. “We woke up for conversation.”

It’s always nice to have someone new to tell all the crazy road-stories to,” Ned added.

Oh no, come on, we’re not doing that,” Robb cut in hastily. “Jennifer, they exaggerate. Don’t believe anything they tell you.”

That got all of them chuckling. “Oh, come on, Robb,” Morgan wheedled. “Don’t you wanna tell her about the time we all drove two hours in the wrong direction because Ned’s map got wet and the ink bled through?”

Kala rolled her eyes. “You guys have to get some new stories. You tell the same ones to everybody.”

Perks of being on the road,” Ned replied. “People don’t know your whole history. How about that car you and … yeah, the car you were driving, starting out? Thing’s primary color was Bond-O.”

That car you and Sebast were driving, he’d started to say, and shifted gears mid-sentence. Kala’s last mouthful of deliciously silky yogurt suddenly felt like glue. She swallowed anyway, soldiering on, “Look, my brother and I bought that car with our very own money. So it looked like crap. Dustin helped us get her running, and after we covered all the rust-holes in Bond-O, we got a couple friends in visual art at Stalmaster to paint her up.”

We’re talking like a 1990 Buick Century here,” Robb said, getting into the spirit of the thing. “Big square boxy thing, with the trippiest graffiti you ever saw painted up the sides. Godzilla on the hood, Mothra on the trunk. And even after she bought her brother out and it was her car, she kept it like that.”

I loved that car,” Kala protested. “She got us from Metropolis to Los Angeles and back. She’d still be running now if she hadn’t thrown a piston clear through the hood trying to come up I-70 in Colorado. It would’ve cost more than the whole car was worth to rebuild the engine, even with Dustin coming out to work on it and doing the labor ourselves.”

You work on cars?” Jennifer asked, eyebrows going up.

Kala grinned; nothing better in the world than defying expectation. It was practically her birthright. “Oh yeah. My mom never wanted me to be helpless, stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire or a busted serpentine belt.”

Neither did my dad,” Jennifer replied. “He had a ‘64 Impala he was restoring when I was growing up. I started out handing him wrenches, but by the time I was in high school he was letting me put parts in because I could reach places he couldn’t.”

Dustin – that’s Kala’s ex, the mechanic – had her doing that when were in Kansas last time,” Robb chuckled. “Real smooth. ‘Oh hey, you’ve got little hands, get this bolt off for me please?’ And of course she did.”

Which how I met his current girlfriend with engine grease all over my arm,” Kala said dryly. “She’s cool, though.”

That’s good for her. You didn’t have to chase her out of town like the last one,” Ned replied.

That bitch from Possum Trot shouldn’t have tried using him for his money,” Kala growled.

Jennifer cocked her head, and smiled. “You’re kind of a spitfire, aren’t you?”

She was going to protest – as long as no one messed with people she cared about, Kala didn’t go looking for trouble, at least not in her civilian identity – but Morgan cut in. “Oh hell yeah she is,” he told Jennifer. “She’s a blue belt in something I can’t pronounce. A couple weeks ago she taught us all how to get out of chokeholds.”

Guys,” Kala protested, laughing.

Ned just leaned in. “She can throw me on the floor like I’m not eight inches taller. Right now she’s dating her martial arts instructor, and they beat the crap outta each other all the time.”

Okay, guys, that’s enough,” Kala said. She gave Jennifer a helpless shrug. “Yeah, all right, I’ve got a blue belt in seido juku. My trainer taught me some taekwondo and hapkido, plus some street-fighting stuff. It’s great for keeping in shape, and I don’t have to worry about creepy people after shows.”

I did taekwondo, too,” Jennifer said, brightening. “It was more fun than zumba. Sounds like you’re a little more serious, though.”

Well, sometimes it comes in handy,” Kala admitted.

If only they knew how hard she really trained, and how she used it. For a brief, mad moment brought on by sudden changes of perception and lack of coffee, Kala let herself imagine what would happen if anyone at the table knew they were sitting with the Blur, Gotham’s newest crime-fighter. Or that the Blur wasn’t some random metahuman, she was actually Superman’s daughter, and she had no intention of booking a plane ticket to get to Smallville for Thanksgiving.

That was an amusing mental picture, for a few minutes – Jennifer probably did the wide-eyed with amazement thing very well – until Kala thought about the rest of it. If anyone at this table knew she could cave in a roof, that her eyes lit up with heat-vision when she was angry, that she had an alter ego ready and willing to do whatever was necessary to protect herself and her friends…

Yeah, it was a very good thing she had Jay in her life. He knew her, all of her, and he liked her just the way she was, flaws and all. Of the rest, not even her own family knew the shadow in her mind as well as Jay did. And no one would stare down that darkness like Jay, fearless because he knew the feel of the blood on his hands the same way she did. He knew how easy it would be to solve things that way, until killing became the only tool he remembered how to use, and he dreaded that road as much as Kala did.

She made herself smile, and keep up the lighthearted conversation, but a thread of unease still ran through her. Despite being among close friends and coworkers whom she regarded as a kind of family, Kala still felt just the tiniest bit alone.

Chapter Text

Kala was getting ready for rehearsal, putting the last touches on her makeup, when she heard something that caught her attention. Rehearsal makeup wasn’t too complicated, she just had to have enough eyeliner and shadow that the boys wouldn’t worry about her. A few years of stage and concert makeup meant that her bare face looked, well, too bare.

She couldn’t quite identify the noise that had interrupted her, and stopped to listen more carefully. Morgan was next door, humming under his breath as he brushed his teeth. Ned was in the same room, in the shower. And Robb…

Robb was in the other room, hitching in a breath like he was trying not to cry. While Derek spoke to him like he was some kind of misbehaving child, her keen ears catching the end of a sentence: “… absolutely ridiculous, of course you can’t!”

Kala got to her feet, throwing on a blouse over her tank top, and stormed out of the room. She didn’t care that no one without her super-hearing could’ve possibly overheard the argument. Hotel walls were thin, everyone knew that. And she didn’t intend to let them wonder for long how she even knew there was a problem. Her intervention would be dramatic enough to sweep all minor concerns aside.

She didn’t even have to pound on the door. All of their key-cards worked in all the rooms, that made it easier when they all grouped up in one place and left water bottles or phones or jackets in each other’s rooms. She trusted her band, anyway, and they trusted her.

Just like Robb needed to be able to trust her to ride to his rescue, and she was done with Derek’s bullshit. Of all of them, Robb needed a self-esteem boost the most, and he had the least defense against this kind of bullying. Kala flung the door open, and from the hall she heard Derek tell him, “You think you love her but you don’t really know her, you only met her in person a week ago, and you can live with someone for years and not really know who they are completely. This is insane, you’re not in love with some porn star, you’re just in love with who you think she is!”

And that was just about enough, as far as she was concerned. It was far past time to do something about this. “Okay, you can shut the fuck up right now,” Kala growled, stalking up to Derek with her eyes blazing. Of course he’d corner Robb alone, of all of them, the one who was a deep-down marshmallow despite outward appearances. “This doesn’t really have anything to do with him and you know it, Derek. You leave him the hell alone, he can date anyone he damn well wants, and you don’t get any say in it. Period, end of story. Now get the fuck out, this damn minute; I am not fucking playing with you, Derek.”

Just as she expected, Derek turned on her instead of her bassist, but he wouldn’t drop the topic. “ You shut the hell up,” he snapped. “Of course you’d let him run around getting photographed with this whore, as if we don’t have an image to protect…”

The look on Robb’s face hurt, the unexpected lashing-out had him out of sorts, his expression disbelieving even as he bristled. “She’s not a whore !”

That tore it for Kala. Temper red-lining, she knew it would only be a matter of time before this would become more than words if it kept escalating. “And I wouldn’t change what I’m saying if she was !” Kala yelled, fighting for restraint. This asshole right here… “Get out , Derek, you leave him be!”

“Look, this is a man-to-man conversation and you don’t have any part in it,” Derek said, rolling his eyes at her. The dismissive tone, and the absolute bullshit he was spinning, already had her struggling for control. Lois Lane’s daughter had no patience for this kind of old-school misogynist nonsense.

And then Derek put his hands on her shoulders, trying to turn her around and make her walk away. Huge mistake, as Jay would have cheerfully warned him.

Kala reacted as she’d been trained to, her hands coming up inside Derek’s arms and slapping outward, knocking his grip loose. That could’ve been the end of it, should’ve been the end of it, but he’d hurt Robb. He’d hurt one of her boys. She was tired, she was barely holding herself and the band together, and with a punishing tour schedule like this, all of them deserved whatever happiness they could find. Jennifer made Robb happy, and that was the only thing that mattered to Kala. There had been far too little happiness so far on this, their name-making tour. None of them had ever seen Robb quite as comfortable and energetic as he had been the last few days. Kala had watched the light that had built there since Jennifer arrived start to gutter out as Derek railed. That absolutely would not do. Derek was not going to run Jennifer off and ruin this for Robb, not after what happened with Sebast.

She was mad at Derek for being a small-minded little prick, for trying to cut off this chance at love, and she was outraged at him for that half-stifled sob she’d heard. Absolutely over the top furious.

It was fury, and her mother’s temper, that led her to act, but it was Jay’s training she used to do it.

Kala grabbed Derek’s wrist, yanked him toward her, and turned her body into his sharply. He went flying over her hip, and her hold on his forearm flipped him over so he landed flat on his back with a thoroughly satisfying thump.

“Holy shit,” Robb whispered.

Kala turned to Derek, seeing the shock on his face as he stared up at her, and she didn’t care anymore who heard her. Her voice came out in a roar that did credit to her back-of-the-arena projection skills. “Now, for the last fucking time, get the fuck off my bus! Your ass is fired, Derek, hit the road. How dare you lay into Robb, but how could you be fucking stupid enough to lay hands on me! I’ve been warning you for months; that’s it, I’m done! Out! Get out, right now!”

Without another word, he scrambled to his feet and bolted from the room, looking genuinely terrified. “Uh, Kala, can you do that?” Robb asked, wincing.

For an instant, there was a jolt of panic, but Kala pushed it to the side; no, she’d done what was right, for she and her boys, and refused to acknowledge the brief chill of unease. “I believe I just did,” she said icily. “Give me your phone.”

Ned and Morgan piled into the room, full of questions, just in time for Kala to reach their agent on Robb’s phone. “Hi Jenna. I have news. Derek’s out, period.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, sounding chipper as always.

God, was she getting sick of salesmen. “What I said. I mean I’m fucking done with him,” she shot back, still seething. “He started in on Robb’s girlfriend, and when I told him to lay off, the motherfucker put his hands on me. Do you understand? He put his fucking hands on me. He’s goddamn lucky I didn’t break his arm. His ass is gone, do you hear me? Get us someone else.”

A beat of silence, and then Jenna continued nervously, “Now Kala…”

That was enough to initiate what the boys had jokingly always called DEFCON-DIVA. Placating her right now was a foolish, foolish move; after so long, Jenna ought to have known better. “Don’t you fucking now Kala me, Jenna, I am through. I’ve been telling you since this tour started that Derek was driving us all crazy. He’s part of the reason why Sebast walked. So now you either get me another manager, or I’m walking. And I’m taking my boys with me. Can you sing, Jenna? ‘Cause you might have to make my tour dates.”

“Oh shit,” Morgan whispered. All the same, he didn’t try to talk her down – neither did Ned or Robb.

That gave truth to everything she was saying; the boys were more than capable of trying to stop her from playing her hand. Not one dissenter. Yeah, it was done for all of them. Kala knew she sounded like a high-riding bitch, but she didn’t care anymore. Mom was right, sometimes you had to be the bitch to get results, and she was through letting Derek walk all over her and her boys.

Jenna’s tone was suddenly very professional. “You’d be in breach of contract.”

Kala had just enough control to stifle her snort of laughter. That changed the tune as quickly as she figured. Now to gamble as high as she dared. It was time for a stand. “Fuck the contract. I have enough money to hire lawyers to drag out the suit until even the label ends up bleeding. I don’t want to quit, Jenna, but I will not work for this sanctimonious asshole. None of you would listen to me, now here we are. Either he goes, or I do. That’s it.”

“Listen, Kala, we don’t have a manager available,” Jenna began.

“Then I’ll do it my fucking self. I’ve done it before; I ran this group long before we had ‘handlers’ or any of that. We’ll keep going, keep making appearances, showing up for concert dates. But Jenna? If I see his face again, we’re getting on a plane to Metropolis. Do you understand me?” Rage pulsed in her temples, and part of Kala wanted Jenna to call her bluff. Try me. Just fucking try me. See what you get. The label thinks they can scare me? I’ve fought people that would leave all of you hiding under your desks and pissing yourself. Try me.

Some of that must have been in her tone, because Jenna replied, “All right, Derek’s off the tour. I’ll speak to him. You’ve only got a handful more dates before your holiday break. After that, we should have a manager available. Until then, be aware that if you or any of the band members fail to be on time for a show, the label will probably pursue a breach of contract case.”

She had expected as much from the moment she got on the phone. It was about time they realized that Kala Lane-Kent would not be pushed around and frightened by a bunch of lazy, spoiled middle-aged executives who had no idea what it took to be their meal-ticket. “Fine by me,” Kala said coldly.

“All right, we’ll talk to you soon,” Jenna replied, and hung up.

Kala snapped the phone shut, and turned to the three boys. Now for the good news and the bad news. “Okay, listen up,” she said. “Derek’s out. And I’m the manager. We know how this works: if we fuck up, they come down on us like the wrath of god. If we can keep our shit together until New Year’s, we’re golden – we’ll get a new manager who isn’t a giant bag of dicks that walks like a man. Got it?”

All of them blinked, and then Morgan said dryly, “I love what this boyfriend’s done for your vocabulary.”

Despite the situation, Kala found herself giving them all a wolfish grin. It would all work out; she would make it work out. Anything had to be better than the last few months. “If we’re late to anything, you’ll hear my mom’s driving words plus all of his favorite swears – and he can curse in about six languages. That I know of. We are not going to screw this up. Is that clear?”

It would work. There was no other choice. This would be a turning-point; this would maybe change the equilibrium for the better. Maybe they would all be able to breathe again. They just had to get to the holidays and take a rest. They would make it. They would, like they always had. She’d make sure of that. All the while, somewhere deep in the back of her mind, Kala thought to herself, I lost Sebast. I’m not losing the whole band.

 

 

The keys to a successful bank robbery in Gotham City were very simple: one, move fast, get in and out before GCPD or Batman could respond, and two, get rid of all incriminating evidence as quickly as possible. Sadly, the cash itself was incriminating, especially when Batman knew where you lived. Selina kept expecting him to show up in her living room, hunting for a suitcase full of bills. While she’d kept as much plausible deniability as possible – she hadn’t worn her suit, opting for the classic ski mask and hooded jacket – he probably knew it had been her. So he was probably watching her bank account, too. That made the second half was a little more difficult than the first.

They’d pulled off the heist easily enough, sliding in minutes before closing, with Ivy taking out the security guards. Harley had cornered the manager and both tellers, and Selina had gone for the vault. They’d timed it just right; the vault was on a time delay, but the manager just wanted to go home after a long day, so he’d started the opening sequence before the branch actually closed. The three women had cleaned out the vault, and since Selina had scouted well in advance and knew which branches were likely to be cash-heavy, they’d cleared almost a million dollars.

All three of them already had some money, of course, and nine hundred grand split three ways only amounted to only three hundred grand each. The job was more about the fun of getting away with it than the actual cash, though if Harley and Ivy decided to leave town, it’d cover their moving expenses nicely.

The problem they had now, however, was that large amounts of cash were noticeable, and Batman was definitely sniffing around the case. Selina didn’t think it was high on his list of priorities, not yet anyway, with Joker and all. Anyway the longstanding rule of their relationship was that he didn’t pester her about anything he couldn’t prove. Harley had worn a mask too, but Ivy’s participation meant the two of them were implicated anyway. Oh well, she’d deal with that when and if she had to.

The funds needed to be laundered, and Harley didn’t trust any of Joker’s people for that. She could’ve, if she’d really wanted to, taken over his organization. She and Selina and Ivy had talked about that possibility on the first night they planned the robbery, bouncing ideas back and forth until Selina realized she’d eaten three of the delicious cinnamon buns and was going to regret the sugar rush later. Ultimately, it wasn’t something Harley wanted to do. Let Joker’s gang run wild, or get caught up by someone else. It would be too easy for one of them to turn on her, trying to make himself the new boss by taking out the person who’d put Joker in the hospital.

Selina had mob contacts, but their rates were ruinous; no family discount for her anymore. She decided to try negotiating with someone else, and made a few calls just to be sure she knew where she stood. No sense going in blind. The girls were willing to let her negotiate for them, too, and Selina knew better than to screw them over. Hell, she might leave them a little more than their share. Christmas was just over a month away, call it a gift. She still hoped the pair of them would run away and live happily ever after together, even if she’d miss them both.

They couldn’t go with her this trip, too many people were probably hunting for Harley, and besides Selina figured she could make the arrangements more easily if she went solo. After contemplating the contents of her closet, trying on and rejecting a dozen outfits, she ultimately picked a slinky dark green silk pantsuit, wore her hair down, and went dramatic with the makeup.

Then hired a limo to take her to the Iceberg Lounge.

The main room at the Iceberg was open to the public, and it did a brisk business among tourists and Gothamites alike. Nothing serious ever went down out there, though. The chief tourist attractions were the enormous saltwater pool, and the ice bar, a separate room where the temperature was twenty-five degrees. Everything in there, the bar, the sculptures, even the seats were carved from ice. It had a separate cover charge and a time limit so no one actually got frostbite, but that just made the ice bar more alluring. A good gimmick, and one that made the rest of the lounge and dancefloor – kept at a chilly sixty degrees – seem warmer.

Selina bypassed the line, and flashed a smile to the bouncer. He nodded, and let her through. She ignored the main room, heading for a door in the back marked ‘Private’. Another bouncer stood there, and this one actually stopped her. “Name?” he asked.

“Your boss knows me,” she said, and tried to move past, but he caught her arm.

“Try that again, miss,” he said, with a hint of warning in his tone.

Selina looked up at him, and her friendly smile faded. “This is the part where I usually just say, ‘Meow’, and then beat the crap out of whoever’s in my way,” she told him. “I’ll cut you some slack, since you’re obviously new. Just tell Oswald that an old friend stopped in, would you?”

With that she handed him back his discreet little stun gun, which she’d taken from his front pocket the moment he caught her arm, and then his wallet, his keys, his ivory-handled switchblade, and his money clip, all of which she’d lifted in a few moments of conversation. The guy looked dumbfounded, and Selina finally stepped past him into the Iceberg’s private rooms. Almost a mirror image of the public side of the club, with a small stage, tables around a dance floor, and the bar at the back.

It was quieter, and colder, back here. No band playing tonight, and not quite as cold as the ice bar for the tourists, but in the low fifties. Cobblepot had always preferred the cold; it was part of why they called him Penguin. The chill meant that a night out for most of the high-profile bad boys and girls in Gotham typically included a coat and gloves, but hey, that was more opportunity for flashy high fashion. Selina herself had worn a cashmere wrap, and the silk pantsuit was warmer than it looked, too.

No one at the tables looked up as she walked by; everyone was here on their own business, and it was wiser not to pay too much attention to anyone else’s. Still, Selina was peripherally aware of familiar faces, some from the big families, some who typically wore masks. At least one didn’t bother, but she nodded to Harvey Dent in passing, and he gave her the same courtesy. He wasn’t in her good books at the moment, after trying to round up the kids, but Cobblepot had a very strict rule about not fighting in his club. It’d been a couple years since one of the Maroni boys thought he was above the rules, and went after one of his rivals in the business. Last Selina heard, the knee replacement was working out nicely, but he still knew every time the weather changed by the pain in old breaks.

Selina picked a seat at the end of the bar, and smiled at the bartender when he glided over to her. “A southside, please,” she told him, and he nodded. He wasn’t new, though Selina hadn’t managed to get a word out of him yet, and he made her cocktail exactly as she liked it. Gin, lime juice, simple syrup, and muddled catnip instead of mint.

She got two sips into it before Cobblepot himself turned up. He stood across the bar from her; the floor on the bartender’s side was slightly higher, and he could look her in the eye that way. “You shouldn’t threaten the doorman, Selina,” he said, as if in grave disappointment.

“I was in shock, Oswald. I thought for a moment you didn’t want me around.” Selina gave him the big sad eyes, what Harley had taken to calling her ‘Puss in Boots’ look, ever since that movie with the green ogre had come out.

It didn’t work on Cobblepot. “Of course not. But it’s not such a hardship to just tell the man who you are. He doesn’t need your real name, just your nom de guerre.”

“He figured it out,” Selina said, and held out her hand. Cobblepot offered his, and she put the guard’s phone into it. “I thought you didn’t let them take calls on the job.”

“I don’t,” he said, with the barest hint of a smile. “I used to worry they’d run deals behind my back, but now my biggest problem is keeping them from playing damned Candy Crush when they should be working.”

Selina chuckled at that. “The world moves on, Oswald, and we move with it.”

“Do we?” he asked. “Sounds like you pulled a very old-fashioned move, a night or two ago. Practically a smash-and-grab. Not really your caliber at all.”

“I would never do such a thing,” Selina protested. “I’m mostly retired, anyway. You shouldn’t listen to rumors, Oswald.” She sipped the drink, watching his eyes, hoping he’d glance down to watch her throat move. The emerald pendant she wore should’ve led his gaze further downward, and generally once a man was thinking about Selina’s cleavage, he was much easier to manage.

No such luck with Oswald. Not tonight, anyway. He just smiled, and said, “My mistake, of course. You’re practically a vigilante these days. Maybe I ought to start making you pay the cover charge.”

“Is that any way to treat an old friend?” Selina asked sadly.

He grinned, showing perfectly white and even teeth. “There are no friends in our line of work, kitty-cat. You know that as well as I do. To survive in this town, you put business first, and don’t let ‘friends’ tell you otherwise.”

“Oh, come on,” she said, reaching out to touch his forearm briefly. And not lifting his watch when she did it. “If anyone in Gotham can afford to be friendly, it’s you. Last I heard, the Iceberg is doing so well from the tourist trade, you could even pass an IRS audit.”

Cobblepot scoffed slightly. “Maybe I could. Maybe information is a better trade to be in. I don’t like jail, Selina. It’s boring, the food’s terrible, and it cuts into my profits, not being here to supervise things.”

“Maybe we’re all going legitimate,” she mused, running her fingers along the rim of the cocktail glass. “It’d be one way to put the Bats out of business.”

“The mob would pick up the difference,” Cobblepot replied. “And your loverboy would implode, if he didn’t have crime to fight. Enough, Selina, I know you’re not here to reminisce about old times. What do you need?”

She sighed, dramatically, and gave him a winsome look. Cobblepot had always had a bit of a thing for her, just enough to be something of a soft spot in his usually flinty dealings with other rogues. And Selina had checked in with one of her contacts in the escort business; he still had a definite type, and it was still leggy blondes. Hence the pantsuit, and her hair spilling over her shoulders.

“What I need is a bit of business help. What I want is to work with a friend I can trust, and not these new-money mobsters who think they can scam me,” Selina murmured. With that, she polished off her drink.

Ever the gentleman, he gestured to the bartender for another. “I pity anyone who tries to pull the wool over your eyes. I know how sharp your claws are. I suppose, for the greater good, I ought to at least hear you out.” And even though Cobblepot was acting like he was doing her some kind of huge favor, Selina knew that he loved being the central broker for information and money alike. It played into all of his conceits, having Gotham’s wealthy and powerful fawning over his club as the nightspot, and at the same time having all the other rogues come to him for help.

When the drink arrived, Selina gave him a hopeful smile. “Your office? I don’t want to talk business out here.”

“Of course,” he told her.

Cobblepot had his hang-ups, and one was that he didn’t like being reminded of his height. Even Selina was taller, and she walked half a pace behind him to his office, where she curled up in a chair instead of sitting on the desk as she might’ve with someone else.

He took his seat and looked at her shrewdly; Selina met his gaze levelly. She knew she was smart, but her greater strengths were intuition and adaptability. She wouldn’t try to out-plot Penguin any more than she’d try to out-think Oracle. What she could do, and did very well, was figure out what script he had in mind for this encounter … and change it up on him.

“How much money are we talking about?” Oswald asked.

“Almost a mil,” Selina replied. Which, yes, made it clear she’d been involved in the bank robbery that was all over the news, but hell, what was he going to do? Sell that information to Capespotting?

“Right. I can get it back to you through legitimate streams in under a week, but to do that is going to cost me time, effort, and some of my own investment,” Oswald replied.

Selina shrugged; that was business as usual. “Of course. What’s your cut?”

“Fifty percent,” he said.

Fifty?!” Selina heard her own voice squeak. She’d thought he would start at thirty, and hoped to argue him down to fifteen! “Oswald, come on, how long have we known each other? No one in this town takes fifty, not even the Falcones!”

“You’re hot right now, Selina,” he pointed out. “And you’re running with someone even hotter. The Bats are watching Harley – well, you probably know that better than I do. The mob’s watching her, Joker’s people are watching her, and Dent’s watching her. You know, Dent’s sitting out there in the lounge right now, wondering why you came to see me. Three women rob a bank together in this town, even if you painted Ivy we’d all know who it was. And there’s a very large target on Harley’s back.”

All true, but Selina hadn’t thought he’d let it stop him from doing business. “And you’re scared of Dent now?” she challenged. “His goons beat up your boys in the street and you still let him drink here. What’s Harv got on you?”

“He drinks here because he follows the rules and he pays well. What happens in the street is just business, too, even if the transactions aren’t as elegant.” Oswald shrugged, unbothered by the implication – which meant he really wasn’t scared of Two-Face. “You can go to the mob, they’ll give you better numbers, but they won’t pay. You’ll have to go wading into them and remind them why no one messes with you or the girls. And that’ll draw attention you don’t want. At least you know I’m honest.”

“Fifty is still ridiculous,” Selina said. “You’re dealing with me, not Harley, and she’s laying very low.”

“Except for going out robbing banks. Granted, that’s mid-profile, for Gotham. It’s not high-profile here until the Bat-signal lights up. What worries me, Selina, is what she wants the money for. I might get blamed for that one. Joker’s still alive, you know, and word is he’s going to recover. My money’s on a complete recovery. He’ll be up and walking by the first of December.”

“Mine’s on someone taking him out while he’s still handcuffed to the hospital bed,” Selina growled.

Oswald shook his head. “Joker’s the only one who makes me believe in luck. No one’s going to kill him in the hospital. And when he does get out, he’s going to want to make a rug out of Harley’s skin.”

“Yeah, well, I have a vested interest in not seeing that happen,” Selina said, off-handed. “Not to mention, I doubt that’s how it ends. Harley finally woke up, Oswald. If he does come after her, she’ll tear him apart. The only reason she stopped that time was because getting Bud to the vet was more important than turning Joker into a greasy smear on the floor. And all of that discounts what Ivy might do to him, now that she doesn’t have to worry about Harley hating her for it.”

He regarded her thoughtfully. “Sounds like you know more than the whispers going around.”

“Of course I do. They’re my friends.” Selina saw what he meant to do, but she wanted him to be the one to say it.

Oswald steepled his fingers, drawing it out, wanting her to say it instead. Selina just looked at him, her eyes open and guileless while her mind spun behind it. At last, he said, “I’d be willing to knock a few points of that percentage for some solid details.”

“You’re asking me to betray a confidence,” Selina said, looking wounded.

“Information benefits everyone. If she’s willing to let you handle the money, she’s got to understand that you’ll have to manage the information, too.” He looked back at her steadily.

With an air of great reluctance, Selina asked, “How much?”

“Ten percent. That makes my cut forty,” Oswald said.

She winced. “God, Oswald, that’s three hundred and sixty grand. That leaves less than two hundred apiece for us, and we’re the ones who went out there and got it!”

“You could run it through your own contacts,” he suggested, with a little smile. “I heard you had a business of your own. Dog training makes good money these days, just watch television.”

Selina hissed, then got herself back under control. “I know who set that one up, and I’ve already gotten her back for it. How did you know?”

“She used your real phone number,” Oswald pointed out. “I keep an eye out for any interesting news about my friends, Selina. You took the website down the same day it went up. Now what did you ever do to piss Talia al Ghul off that much?”

“Mostly Batman,” she replied. “You want details, I want another ten percent off.”

He laughed then, but it was good-humored, not spiteful. “Selina, Selina. People forget how very mercenary you can be. You’re a survivor, first and foremost. And you picked the right moniker, you always land on your feet. Information’s better than money; it’s one of the few things you can sell more than once. And it grows, if you let it, with a better interest rate than any bank.”

“What information do you want?” Selina asked. “And what am I getting for it?”

He ticked off the points on his fingers. “I want the specifics of what Harley did to Joker, and why, for ten percent. I want to know how you managed to get the Daughter of the Demon to play games like this website, but that’s only worth five to me – it’s a curiosity, not vital intel.”

Which left her paying him thirty-five percent of almost a million dollars, and Selina had wanted to pay only fifteen percent. We can’t always get everything we want, she told herself, but it didn’t fly. What would she tell the girls? That she hadn’t been able to drive a bargain?

Still, she didn’t jump to offer Oswald anything else, just raised an eyebrow, waiting. Selina knew some very dangerous secrets. And she might have an ace up her sleeve, too.

He regarded her thoughtfully, and as she expected, made an offer. “Now, I might be able to take another twenty-five percent off – and that’s cheap, Selina, I’d have to ask you not to tell anyone I cut it that low. I’d do it for you, and only you, since we have known each other so long, and you’re awfully reliable for someone who claims to be such a free spirit. But I need something in return.”

She changed tactics, simply by stopping the game. Selina sat forward, elbows on the table, looking at him the way she’d looked at the dons when she’d been running the Calabrese family. “You know I wouldn’t brag about a bargain, Oswald, but you should also know there are some things I won’t do. Not for money, not for love, not to save my own life.”

“That’s what I like about you. You have principles.” He smiled, but Selina knew it wasn’t praise for her character. Archimedes had once said something like, ‘Give me a long enough lever and a fulcrum to place it on, and I shall move the world.’ Cobblepot saw principles as a fulcrum, a fixed point around which he could use information as his lever.

He was very dangerous, in his way. It was hard to know what he already knew, and how he’d put it together with what she told him to make bigger conclusions than she intended. Selina just waited, patient as the proverbial cat at a mousehole, making him name what he wanted instead of volunteering anything.

Oswald’s eyes were bright. “We’ve got a new player in town this year. A new metahuman, and since when does the Bat give the nod to a meta? Not to mention, this Blur is running around with Red Hood. Since when does he take a partner? And what does he want with a meta? He spent his time in the desert, after he came back from the dead, and his trainer’s not a fan of metahumans either.”

Shit, shit, shit. Selina knew who had trained Jay, too. Ever since he’d come back wearing the red helmet, since the DNA test proved that Red Hood was Jason Todd, Bruce had known who it had to have been, and the knowledge tortured him. But she did not want to give Oswald any further information about exactly which al Ghul it had been, or about the Blur, and that was his real target here.

So she shrugged, pretending ignorance. “You think I know anything useful about Blur? Funny, Ivy asked me the same thing.”

“Ivy met Blur. And Ivy ended up in Arkham. That makes the new girl even more interesting. There aren’t that many who slip through Ivy’s fingers. What do you know, Selina?” Oswald leaned forward too, his eyes agleam.

Twenty-five percent was almost a quarter of a million dollars. Selina sighed, feeling all the complicated ties of friendship and love and good common sense tugging her in different directions. At last she said quietly, “She’s got more than speed. When someone she cares about is in danger, I don’t know what she’d do. As for why Hood wants her … I’m pretty sure he’s seen her with the mask off. And everything else off, too.” That wasn’t really a secret, anyone who’d seen the two of them together for more than five minutes could figure out they were a couple.

“Hood fell in bed with a meta,” Oswald mused. “I’m sure you know most men dream about something like that. Very few of them can handle it.”

Selina nodded, thinking, That’s why you pay for yours. You know what they want from you, and it’s all straightforward. No messy breakups, no entanglements, just a transaction satisfying for both parties. Can’t say I blame you … but I’m as much a fool for love as Hood is, and I need more than a good lay.

When she didn’t rise to that, he continued, “So what is she? Blur can throw off Ivy’s control, according to rumor she caved in a roof on top of Harvey’s boys when they were out recruiting, and we all know she’s faster than almost anything. It’s an impressive lineup, sure, but what else has she got?”

Selina sighed and tipped her head back. “Oswald, you think Batman just tells me things? Come on, he knows who I hang out with. It’s not like he’s going to volunteer information.”

“I wouldn’t trust hearsay,” he replied. “I don’t want to know what the Bat told you, I want what you know. You were there when she brought the roof in. Looks like you’ve been looking after Hood’s pack of strays, too.”

She narrowed her eyes. “We have a common interest. Those kids are just kids. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Hood had no idea what to do with them, but he couldn’t leave them for someone like Harv to snatch up. He called on me because I owed him one. And I was happy to help out. So sue me, I don’t like to see children getting hurt.”

“I knew about the kids,” Oswald said with a shrug. “That was you and Canary working with Hood. Once I knew you weren’t running a junior vigilante training camp, it wasn’t interesting. And no, before you think about sharpening your claws on my face, I didn’t point Harvey at them. He stumbled across them all on his own.”

Selina tapped her nails on his desk irritably. “Of course we weren’t trying to turn them into vigilantes. Gotham doesn’t need any more kids putting on capes – or masks – to deal with their shitty childhoods. Is it really that surprising that a bunch of social misfits would try to help out some kids, Oswald? There’s no one in this town wearing a costume who’s got both parents alive and sane.”

He held up both hands. “Easy, Selina, I’m not one to judge. I’ve had the occasional philanthropic moment myself – leaves you feeling hungover, doesn’t it, all that altruism? Like you need to punch someone to remember who you are.”

She cut him a quick smile at that. “Can’t let the do-gooders think I’m one of them.”

“I bet Hood’s having a bit of identity crisis, running around with the Bats and saving kids, when a few years ago he was ready to blow this town apart. Maybe he’s just mellowed out.” Oswald looked at her, and Selina realized that all of her attempts to distract him hadn’t worked. “Besides, it’s not the kids that concern me. Not Hood, either. I want to know what Blur is, so we can figure out how to deal with her. That’s where you come in, Selina. Gotham’s one big balance beam, with the heroes on one end and us villains on the other. And you, dancing along the center, tiptoeing from one side to the other.”

That was entirely too accurate a description of how she felt about her role in Gotham. “I don’t exactly do commitment, Oswald. And I don’t like being labeled a villain, or a hero.”

He continued patiently, “Of course not. But you know when you need to drop a hint, here and there, to keep your friends on both sides safe from each other. Blur’s an unknown variable. In the interest of everyone’s safety, don’t you think I should know what her deal is?”

Cobblepot sounded so very reasonable, but Selina knew what Kala was – and what her weaknesses were. If Oswald learned that, the price of kryptonite in Gotham would go through the roof. No matter what, more people would start carrying the stuff, and Kala would eventually get hurt.

Still, a quarter of a million dollars was nothing to sneeze at. And he was right, she’d given out tidbits of information before, to Batman and the other rogues. Trying to keep the balance, to keep her friends on both sides from getting hurt.

Selina sighed, and played a last gambit. “Times like this, I really start to think I should’ve slept with you, back in the day.”

He chuckled … but there was that spark in his eye. “No woman alive is worth a quarter of a million dollars, Selina. That’s politician’s hush money, and there’s no man alive who wouldn’t want the world to know about you. Old times’ sake wouldn’t get your money laundered for ten percent, either. Just information.”

She’d known that wouldn’t work, but it would distract him just enough to make her actual attempt successful. Selina frowned, biting her lip nervously, as if about to make a huge concession. “Listen, Oswald … just, promise they’ll never find out it came from me?”

Cobblepot spread his hands magnanimously. “Have I ever given up a source? Selina, you wound me.”

She nodded, and leaned in close. Cobblepot did the same. Selina whispered in his ear, knowing her breath was warm and faintly minty with the liquor, “I don’t know anything for certain. But with those powers, and the way she carries herself? Something about her just says Amazon, doesn’t it?”

Oswald’s avaricious eyes gleamed.

 

 

Amnesia turned out to be the best bet, for getting a decent standard of care and opening up possibilities of escape. So Joker pretended not to know who he was, or where he was. He gave the president’s name confidently, only he said the one from two elections ago. All politicians were the same, anyway, a bunch of bad comedians telling the same washed-up jokes over and over again, the biggest of which was ‘If elected, I promise to serve’. Lining their pockets, every one, turning themselves into more gears in the political machine, and Joker had sometimes thought about getting involved in politics. His understanding of mob mentality could’ve come in handy.

But it would be too boring. And even he had limits. There were things too low for him to stoop to. Besides, playing well with others was an essential political skill, and one Joker had always lacked.

He was affable and courteous to all the doctors and nurses and everyone else with a string of letters after their names, he smiled and nodded and complied with every ridiculous request, and even so, most of them didn’t thaw. They still regarded him with wary suspicion, and not once were the restraints left loose.

No matter. He only needed one to become too trusting or too careless.

Or he could wait, and break out of Arkham again. That would be harder; he’d rather escape from the hospital, and so he made sure they’d keep him here. After all, they wouldn’t bother to transfer him as long as they thought he couldn’t walk.

That was a great one, a truly inspired performance. After his attempt to introduce Commissioner Gordon to a wider worldview had failed, Joker had learned a lot about paralysis, wondering what exactly he’d done to poor little Babster Gordon. He’d done a lot of reading in medical journals, joined some obscure technical forums for student doctors, and seen some crazy things on certain specialized internet archives. But he’d also learned a great deal from the experience, and among the facts he retained was how truly bad most people were at faking paralysis. The standard test for pseudo-paralysis was to remark to another clinician in the suspected malingerer’s hearing that paralyzed people stayed in whatever position you put their limbs, then raise the patient’s arm and let go. If it stayed up, they obviously weren’t paralyzed. For craftier patients, the doctors would simply raise the arm and let it go in such a way that it would smack the patient’s face, if they truly had no control of their limbs.

He wasn’t trying to pretend full paralysis, no. That’d be over the top. Instead, he paid attention as soon as he could move, and noticed that his right side seemed a trifle weaker than the left. Joker played that into something like a minor stroke, with generalized weakness on his right side. Even after the big casts and external fixators came off – his fractures healed so quickly that the doctors were beginning to doubt what they’d seen on his intake radiographs – he still had one arm in a sling and a whole lot of bandages wound around his head. And when he first tried to stand, to take a few halting steps with nurses and security guards watching anxiously, he’d crashed to the ground hard enough jar his fractured jaw and bite his own tongue.

They wouldn’t believe he was faking, with blood on the floor tiles. Joker smiled on the inside; he never half-assed things. Always commit a hundred and ten percent to any performance, or the audience won’t buy it.

As one nurse dabbed some antibiotic on his new scrapes, Joker apologized abjectly for making a mess and causing a fuss. He was channeling Harley at her most obsequious; she did a really effective grovel. Personally it drove him nuts, wanting to put a boot in her stupid bleating face, but most people couldn’t help wanting to reassure someone who acted like this.

And in the nurse’s serious eyes, Joker saw the first glimmers of pity. Got one, he thought, thanking her humbly. With all of his considerable charm bent on her, it wouldn’t take long to open up an opportunity.

He’d do his physical therapy assiduously, and a few isometric exercises on his own time as well. When the chance finally came, Joker needed to be ready.

 

 

Jay checked his phone during a slow moment on patrol. Ever since Joker had regained consciousness, he’d been paying an aide for updates on the bastard’s condition. Straight-up HIPAA violation, but so was Babs hacking the hospital mainframe. Besides, it was Joker, who fucking cared? It looked like the lucky fuck was going to live, and even though he seemed to have some ‘cognitive deficits’ as the hospital termed them, Jay didn’t believe that was permanent. Hell, it might not even be real. People forgot how damn smart Joker was in the face of all the cackling insanity.

He’d gone over hospital security. Just checking. So far it seemed airtight. No chance of Joker slipping out … or of Harley slipping in, which he knew Bruce worried about. Batman was all over it, and so were the cops, guarding every access. They had to be. It was too easy to kill someone in the hospital. A good-sized air bubble in a central line would do it. Or a little extra push of painkillers. No need to get dramatic about it.

No chance of Jay himself slipping in, either, and he needed to stop thinking about air bubbles and morphine and the good old-fashioned pillow over the face. Or hell, bullet to the brain, even if someone else snuck in and offed Joker, Bruce would look at him first. Might as well be guilty if he was gonna get blamed.

Still, when he checked his phone, Jay was glad to find a distraction. Kala had texted him. Life just got a little more interesting. And not in the way I wanted it to. Not good.

He frowned. Patrol’s boring. What happened?

Her reply wasn’t quite as swift as super-speed typing allowed, and Jay knew she was thinking about how to phrase something. Manager pushed me a little too far & uh… I let him go.

For one wild second, Jay thought she meant ‘off a roof’ or something. This was Kala, and she’d been pissed at this asshole manager for months. Her next message was simply, Label’s gonna be pissed, a lot of people are going to pissed likely, but he deserved it.

You fired the fuck? he asked.

Her response came as a series of messages. Yeah. Told the label, me or him. He’s out. Good news: no more panicky manager jammed up our asses. Bad news: I’m the manager now. Playing Wendy is getting harder and harder to take, but what choice? This is not how it was supposed to be. Just sick of the fakeness this time.

Jay grimaced, reading that. Kala had been extra busy; the West Coast tour dates were intense as they got closer to Los Angeles, with multiple shows in the same city. That was eating up her time, and this news meant she’d have even less free time. Right as he was trying to get a grip on the fact that he no longer looked forward to working alone, too.

Nah, that was selfish. He could handle it. She had a day job, she had to take care of things. He typed back, You’re good at it. If they don’t listen, just drop them off a roof.

That should’ve made her laugh, but instead, there was a long pause between messages. Jay wondered what Kala was doing, and thought about just calling her. Hearing her voice would give him a lot more information than dry words. Problem was, situational awareness was important on patrol, and he didn’t get absorbed in texts the way he did in calls. He could look up and check his surroundings between messages.

I’m thisclose to just chucking all of it. Fuck it, Sebast can walk away, so can me and the boys.

Jay stared. She’d told him being a singer was her dream before she even knew she was Superman’s daughter. This was what Kala had wanted since she was like five years old . And she was good at it, he might give her shit about her music not being his style, but he’d heard every album by now and she clearly had talent. Not to mention, the sold-out shows spoke for themselves. She should’ve been on top of the world; she was a fucking rock star . What had changed to make her consider throwing it away?

You sure that’s what you want? Or are you just tired of dealing with bullshit like Derek? Jay typed the question, wishing he wasn’t on patrol. He really should’ve called. He sent a quick follow up. Would come kick his ass, but I’m at work.

The phone buzzed, and Kala replied in a series of messages. Jeez, here you are ON PATROL, doing shit that matters, and having to listen to the princess whine about how haaaaard it is to be a fucking singer. Sorry, Jay. Why do you put up with me?

For once, he didn’t give her the glib answer, something shallow about how she filled out the uniform he’d made for her. That would’ve been safer, but hell, K wasn’t about safe . This was a chick who could fly around the entire planet in a matter of hours, who was totally down with crispy-frying the Clown – and could do that with a look . Literally.

So he typed back slowly, feeling the back of his neck creep a little at being so honest, I don’t put up with you. I LIKE you. Close air support’s nice, you’re damn handy in a fight, sometimes I need a kick in the ass and you’re good for that too. But mostly I just like you.

Jay waited, scanning his surroundings. The immediate area was quiet; Red Hood dropping into a drug deal and kicking the shit outta the dealers tended to have that effect. All the rats had gone back into their holes for a while.

WHY? That reply came back in its own message, followed shortly by, I don’t even LIKE me half the time. Except when I’m with you.

To his mind, there was nothing not to like. Yeah, okay, when he’d met her, he’d thought Kala was a spoiled little daddy’s girl. Whoever heard of a superhero masquerading as a rock singer? Hell, what was up with Superman’s daughter of all people trying to go part-time? It looked ridiculous…

Until you knew her, and knew why she shied away from the hero game, why singing was so important as a career, being one of the few areas where her superpowers didn’t give her an advantage. Until you knew how fractured K really was, all the things she tried to hide, and if you were, say, a fucked-up ex-Robin who’d damn near died and came back hungry for revenge, maybe you looked into those gorgeous hazel eyes and saw some kind of an echo there. Someone as broken as you were, still soldiering on, still trying despite every fuckwit shaking their heads about what a dilettante she was. And somehow, when she was at her worst, when her shadow-self was trying to swallow her whole or when she’d been beaten damn near unconscious, she found the grit to keep going. She clawed her way back, just like he had. How could he not love her?

Jay shuddered, fighting down the instinct to drop the phone and find a fight to get into. He hadn’t said it out loud , it didn’t count. Don’t talk shit about my girl, he sent back. Then another message, You just like yourself when you’re with me bc I let you beat up bad guys. And that’s the most fun we can have w clothes on. Who doesn’t like fun?

He could imagine her breaking into a smile, her somber expression lightening. At least, that was what Jay hoped for. He felt like he’d been in one place too long, and jogged over to the next rooftop before looking at his phone again.

Kala had replied. How pathetic and needy do I sound if I ask if I can come over?

Trepidation haunted him. Jay wasn’t good at emotional stuff, even if Kala was a lot more level-headed and easy to read than most people he knew. Well, most of the people he knew were Bats, so that was a low bar to clear. Pretty sure ‘coming over’ privileges are including in the girlfriend package. Any time, K.

Another pause, then, How are things there tonight?

Slow. Just street scuffles. Could break off & meet you. That was the honest truth, and Jay waited for a reply.

It could be a couple weeks before I get back. Dya think the ‘wife’ would mind? That made him chuckle; he wasn’t as married to Gotham City as Bruce was, but at least Kala was showing some humor again.

Come on. What Gotham doesn’t know won’t hurt her, he sent back, and then tapped his comm. “O, there’s nothing serious on the street tonight. I’m gonna head in early.”

“You’re clear,” she replied. “Maybe get some sleep for once.”

“Nah, I think I’ll invite a hot girl over and have a wild party, stay up ‘til dawn,” he joked back.

“Tell Blur I said hello,” Babs laughed at him, and Jay smiled.

Chapter Text

Sebast took a bar stool and looked in the mirrored wall behind the bottles, watching all the other people. Couples and small groups sat at tables, single men lined up along the bar, and others were out on the dance floor. For now, he preferred the quieter bar. Once he would’ve gone to the dance floor first, but tonight he felt, well, a little rusty. So he needed to up his odds of success, and fortunately modern technology came through for him.

Sebast had downloaded Grindr again, put up his favorite pic – with his shirt open, strumming the guitar – and waded through the usual weirdo messages while getting ready to go out. Despite his profile clearly stating ‘top’, he got a couple of extremely beefy young men offering to fuck him into next week – though usually not that articulately. A few recognized his face and scorned him for using a fake pic, one of which began the conversation by saying, “No way is Sebast Vélez on Grindr, lol nice try.” His usual response to doubters was to write their profile name on a sheet of paper with the time, and send a pic of him holding it up next to his face. But this one wasn’t quite cute enough to bother.

One guy sent, in his first message, an explicit offer involving pizza and ranch sauce. At least he was more creative than most of the guys who offered sex in the first message; Sebast ignored all of them. Another had ‘no fats, no femmes, no blacks,’ in his profile, so Sebast blocked that hateful garbage. He had no time for bigots, just in case their stupidity was contagious. Another match asked for a dick pic in his first message, and he turned that down as too thirsty. “At least say ‘hi’ first, damn,” he’d muttered. He also ignored a three hundred word message from an obvious bot, fishing for blackmail nudes.

And this whole exercise in trying to forget wasn’t working, because he remembered reading the more bizarre messages to Kala and making her laugh until she wept. He would never forget the horrified look on her face when he read the exchange with a really cute guy who, when asked what he was doing that day, told Sebast he was headed to a friend’s funeral. Or the gagging noises she’d made when he read out the messages from the guy who only wanted to buy Sebast’s underwear, with a bonus for extra sweat.

Shit, even the photo he was using had been taken by Kala. Damn. Despite not being here, Kala was so thoroughly threaded through his life that he couldn’t even get laid without thinking of her.

Never mind, out of dozens of messages he’d gotten one decent conversation, and now he was waiting on the guy to show up. Tyler was a couple years younger, clean-cut like Sebast himself, very fit and had a great smile. He wasn’t looking for anything serious, like most men using the app. Just the kind of guy he liked to hook up with – a fun night with a hot guy, and no drama afterward.

Except now Sebast was feeling uneasy, staring at his own reflection in the mirrored bar. It wasn’t fear of rejection. Sebast was gorgeous and knew it; no matter what photo he used, he always got a lot of attention. And he had an entire folder full of carefully chosen pics, from shirtless ones to the face shots working the Latino smolder. He’d gotten flaked on a few times, but that was normal for the online scene. Most of the time, if Sebast wanted to spend the night with someone, he could always find someone. He only went home alone when he wanted to.

Home alone was precisely where he didn’t want to be, the house too big without Kala in it, and the guest bedroom he slept in still not feeling quite right. He knew every swirl in the ceiling plaster from staring up as he tried to fall asleep. Which was part of the reason he was here tonight, trying to distract himself with the best cure for insomnia he’d ever found.

He saw Tyler in the mirror as the other man approached, and turned to size him up. The face and body matched the pictures, and yes, the smile was dazzling. “Sebast?” Tyler said, and held out his hand.

Sebast took it and stood up; Tyler was taller by an inch or so, not enough to be awkward. “The one and only. Nice to meet you, Tyler. What would you like to drink?”

He always bought the drinks, unless his partner made a big deal of paying his own way. One, Sebast could afford it, and two, it kept them from getting blitzed too soon. He didn’t like drunk sex … except that once. Sebast stamped down on that line of thought quickly.

Unaware of his conflict, Tyler answered with a grin, “I like Hennessy. How about a Black Velvet?”

Cognac and vermouth couldn’t go wrong, so Sebast ordered two as he took his seat and Tyler took the one next to him. While they waited for the drinks, they made a little small talk, just checking out the chemistry and each other. Sebast had a strict no-weirdos policy and was very discriminating about who he agreed to meet, but sometimes they managed to fake normalcy long enough to slip past. Tyler didn’t seem to be a weirdo.

Talking about jobs led into a little awkwardness; Sebast didn’t feel right calling himself a singer or talking about his band when he’d walked out of it, and had three voicemails from Jenna on his phone right now, each one more wheedling than the last. ‘Musician’ was good enough, and when he found out Tyler worked retail, they swapped stories about customers from hell.

Never mind that some of the ones Sebast told actually came from Kala’s stint at Bed & Bath. All roads led back to her already, he didn’t have to start paving more. Tyler didn’t seem the Goth rock type, anyway.

After laughing over the lady who insisted that Tyler’s store had sold her their competitor’s clearly-marked product, and did so despite seeing the competition’s name on her own credit statement, they fell into a natural lull in the conversation, just looking into each other’s eyes. Sebast knew the precise moment when he should’ve suggested that they dance – or just head to Tyler’s place or his own – and felt all the weight of habit settle on him. He knew every step of this little abbreviated courtship ritual, from how to make the suggestion smoothly, to how to put his guest at ease or how to comment graciously on his host’s home, to how to offer condoms without breaking the flow of the evening. Sebast was good at the whole seduction game, always had been, and he could get his own satisfaction while leaving this handsome young man seeing stars.

To his surprise, he didn’t want to. All of it seemed … tired, somehow, like he’d been running the same scene in a play over and over, the only change being his co-star. Even the lines were the same. All the spontaneity and joy was just gone, and Sebast had never dreamed he’d feel like that. From the moment he discovered the promiscuous side of the gay community, he’d dedicated himself to laying as many hot young men as physically possible. And he’d been very successful at that goal.

A beat of silence, and then Tyler said, “You know, my roommate works nights. If you wanna come over…”

Sebast sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. Dammit, Tyler was really damn pretty – but going home with anyone when his head was this messed up would be a mistake. “Look, Tyler…”

Second thoughts?” the younger man asked, his tone hardening a little. Sebast couldn’t blame him, he’d put himself out here, gone to meet a stranger, there was obvious chemistry, and now Sebast was getting cold feet.

I’m sorry,” he said, touching Tyler’s arm lightly. “I was trying to get away from some stuff that’s been bothering me, but I think I brought it with me instead. And you’re too damn gorgeous to waste a night with you brooding about my own bullshit.”

Come back to my place, then,” Tyler said with a spark in his eye. “Bet I can make you forget whatever it is. Or whoever it is. At least, for half an hour or so.”

Sebast chuckled at that. “Yeah, you probably could. You just deserve my best, and I’m not on my A-game tonight. I … shit, I can’t even do this part right.”

Nah, it’s cool,” Tyler said lightly. “Doesn’t work out every time. Just, look, take my number, okay? You’re too damn gorgeous to forget about that easily.”

I’ll give you mine, too,” Sebast said, and they typed them into each other’s phones. Only once they were done did he say, a little diffidently, “Look, even if you’re seeing someone or something – you’re an interesting person. I wouldn’t mind just talking.”

Yeah, you seem pretty cool too,” Tyler said, then grinned. “I totally thought you were gonna trade on the rock star cred.”

Sebast looked surprised, and the younger man laughed. “Man, the second photo you sent me is on your band’s page. I thought for sure you’d be some faker trying to steal the real Sebast Vélez’s reputation.”

Nah, it’s me,” Sebast said, feeling embarrassed. “I don’t usually tell people who I am unless they know the band and recognize me. Sometimes it’s nice to know people like you for yourself, not for the fame. Not that I think you were going for that.”

It’s cool,” Tyler assured him. “I just figured some of your pics were a little too good to be true. Like they look professional, so I thought model or actor, and reverse image-searched them. Surprised the hell outta me to meet the real deal.”

Sebast chuckled. “Singer’s close enough. I’ll remember to use shitty selfies next time I try to fly undercover.”

Tyler sighed, giving an expressive shrug. “Look, since you mentioned it … what the hell are you doing on Grindr anyway? A guy like you can walk in anywhere and get attention. Plus, the rock star thing, if you want casual you can always find groupies.”

Narrowing his eyes, Sebast let the laugh turn bitter. “Oh yeah, I get lots of attention. Most of it from creeps. C’mon, you’re pretty too, you know how it is. Don’t you get tired of being treated like Disposable Twink Number Two-Seventy-Eight? Not to mention, I’m decidedly not a twink.”

Gain a hundred pounds and photoshop some chest hair,” Tyler teased, dark eyes sparkling.

I’d just have to stop waxing. Not into that, I like the clean look. And I can’t gain a hundred pounds in this industry, I’m always running my ass off.” Sebast finished off his drink, beginning to feel morose.

Tyler leaned closer. “Okay, Grindr’s good for screening out the freaks, just ‘cause they out themselves so quick. And I’m sure the groupies can get pretty scary…”

You ever had a girl full-on grab your dick and think it was okay?” Sebast interrupted. “I mean grab like it’s a goddamn door handle, and then get all upset when you’re pissed? ’Cause she’s a chick and you’re gay anyway, it should just be funny?”

The younger man shuddered. “ No. And thanks, you just made me glad I’m in school for nursing. So not cool.”

My co-singer ran that one out. Only she thought the girl grabbed my ass – if she knew it was my junk, she’d’ve decked the bitch and let them cart her out on a stretcher.” He slid the glass around in a little circle, smiling to himself. “Kala’s protective as hell. I knew if I told her what really happened to make me jump outta my skin like that, I was gonna hafta post bail. Damn, I miss that girl.”

So call her,” Tyler said. “Shit, I text my best friend memes at two in the morning.”

Sebast couldn’t help laughing. “Little bit more complicated than that, but thanks for the advice.” He turned the conversation deftly aside, and parted from Tyler with a regretful handshake. Damn shame, really, but his head wasn’t right for this.

His head wasn’t right for much, and Sebast walked home, thinking about Kala. Maybe it could be as easy as calling her. He’d done it once, right? And she’d answered. True, he’d called to confront her about the small matter of being a freaking superhero , but hey, what was a little secret identity between friends?

Sebast sighed gustily, his breath frosty in the cold air. It wasn’t a long walk, really, and the chill helped him think. What was he supposed to do ? He wanted to talk to Kala, but he wanted to see her face when he did, try to parse the truth from the things she felt she had to hide.

And he was gradually realizing that it would be damn difficult to watch Kala in love with someone else. Marlene had been okay, it was almost something all of them were in on together. The whole band knew, they helped hide it from the label, and Sebast hadn’t minded because Kala was still right there by his side. Even Dustin hadn’t threatened their friendship, Sebast had still all the little things he and Kala only did together. Dustin wasn’t exactly a fan of mango ice cream or terrible chupacabra movies. He’d been careful not to interfere with Kala and Sebast’s friendship; he’d been a damn good friend to Sebast, too. Even Nick had stepped back a little, knowing Sebast could happily shank him at first.

This guy, Jason Todd, she was flying off to Gotham to see him on the regular. And he knew her in ways Sebast didn’t. He wasn’t freaking out because his girlfriend was an alien; he’d always known what she was. Jay had been her martial arts trainer, he knew all about the superhero stuff, they ran around Gotham mixing it up with all kinds of crazy villains. Hell, half the reason Kala had been pulling away had probably been because she finally found herself with someone who understood . Not even Sebast could say that.

He shook himself, scowling. No, Jay had only met her this summer, right? Maybe they’d crossed paths before that, but the Blur was a fairly new phenomenon in the hero set. And Kala hadn’t acted any different before that. Things had only gotten weird recently, right before she left for the summer – and he was ashamed to admit he’d been glad of the breathing room. For the first week or so. After that, he’d missed her. Maybe if she’d stayed home, something would’ve tipped the balance, and he and Kala would’ve either admitted their feelings … or gotten into a big wicked fight and ended up right here.

The point was, no matter what Jay knew, he couldn’t know her as well as Sebast did. He knew the Blur , he didn’t know KLK . He couldn’t understand all of what she was, either. Sebast had to hang onto that.

Dammit, he was gonna have to talk to her, and find out where they stood. But Thanksgiving was coming up, and then in December he was going to Ponce. Wait, what if Kala came home for Thanksgiving?!

He winced, shaking his head. On top of everything else, what were they gonna do about the house ? Maybe he could buy her out, but if he didn’t go back to the tour he was gonna be in some legal trouble. Maybe he should let her buy him out, instead. Kala had been in love with the place, especially the huge windows…

Sebast came to a complete stop, pedestrians stepping around him resentfully. Of course Kala liked the windows, she was half Kryptonian , she got her powers from the sun!

He shook himself again, and got walking. He’d have to talk to someone about holiday plans. Things were still too new, too weird, and he didn’t want to bump into Kala again until he got his mind right. If he couldn’t talk to Kala about it, then he probably needed to call Lois – and if anyone knew how to handle being in love with a solar-powered alien, it was Lois Lane, the original intrepid reporter. Maybe she could help him make sense of the crazy merry-go-round of thoughts and revelations in his head. Lois had said he still was, always would be, family. Time to test that, he guessed.

After Christmas, though, once he was back from the island, he’d have to see about sitting down with Kala and talking through things. To that end, he probably should call their agent back at some point.

Sebast laughed to himself, turning onto their street. He’d gone from trying to get laid, to making plans for business stuff and a lunch date with someone he considered his other mom. If this was being a responsible adult, he’d just as soon go back to being a crazy rock star, thanks.

 

 

Kala had checked in with Babs, and for once hadn’t gotten trolled. Oracle had informed her that Jay had just signed out of patrol, so she met him at the apartment.

In the apartment, actually. She had a key, and she was used to his security, which anyone else would call paranoia. Kala supposed normal people didn’t have to disarm a laser grid and a tripwire to visit their boyfriend, but hell, it was all part of Jay’s charm. She’d only managed to stumble into a stun gun once . And her situational awareness was pretty keen these days.

She heard his key, and waited for him, her heart beating faster. Kala had changed out of her uniform, just wearing his shirt to curl up on his bed. The room was chilly, but she’d sunned up earlier in the day, and her metabolism was humming along, keeping her nicely warm. To keep herself occupied – she didn’t need to obsess about the band right now – she’d started reading the closest book, which happened to be Emma , by Austen. About as far from Jay’s life experience as a book could be, but maybe that was why he loved them so much. She’d opened it at his bookmark, near the end, and let herself get caught up in the prose.

Kala had just run into the line, ‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,’ when Jay came in, disarming the traps. For a moment she kept staring at the page, taken aback by the words and how they echoed in her own life.

He was here , though, and as he stepped into the room she looked up, her eyes meeting his. Jay wasn’t startled, but his eyes moved over the book in her hands, his shirt covering her skin, her long legs bare beneath. And then he smiled, slow and wicked, the sight of it putting all of her doubts to rest. This was right, this was real, Kala didn’t need to worry about anything when he smiled like that. Jay stalked toward her, his eyes agleam, and said, “I must’ve been very good this year, if Santa sent me a present like this a whole month early.”

Setting the book aside, she smirked at him. “On the contrary, Mr. Todd, this is what you get for being very, very naughty .”

He laughed, the best sound she’d ever heard, and Kala sprang up to leap into his arms. Jay was already moving forward to grab her, and they met in the middle of the room in a tangle of limbs and laughter.

 

 

Halfway across the world, it was mid-morning, and sunlight slanted into Steph’s eyes. “Five more minutes,” she groaned, rolling over.

She rolled right onto Cass, who in the mornings always seemed to be comprised entirely of knees and elbows, and whose shoulder blade caught Steph in the chin. Muttering to herself, she shifted around to get comfortable. Cass never woke up; she could sleep through Steph literally stepping on her, as had happened once or twice on the dicey trip up from Juba. However, if anyone else so much as breathed loudly nearby, Cass would be on her feet with a weapon in hand. Steph envied that training, sometimes, and was awed by the trust Cass had in her.

For a while, she dozed, content in the safety of their little room. But eventually, the light crept further down the wall, and Steph had to face the morning. She kissed Cass’ shoulder, letting her sleep, and finally crawled out of bed.

Their report last night had held some promising hints of Shiva’s intentions; Babs was tracking the shipping information for a warehouse here, where some of Shiva’s men had spent a long evening haggling over goods. They might just have an idea where the mysterious target actually was . Still, Steph anticipated another afternoon and evening of skulking around trying to listen to those men and decipher their plans.

She decided to fortify herself and Cass with food. There was a place nearby that sold delicious sfinz, a sort of flat doughnut that Steph had come to love, especially topped with date molasses. Cass preferred the version with an egg fried atop it, which Steph liked too, but her sweet tooth always prevailed. She dressed to go out, in a slightly different disguise.

They had moved south to the town of Sabha, following Shiva, and they were lucky that this town had a decent amount of tourists. Fort Elena was actually on the back of the currency, and the military had chased out the rebel groups, so things had calmed down enough that Steph and Cass could still blend in. Around here, though, the farrashia were too old-fashioned, enough so to draw attention. Steph and Cass had switched to wearing the niqab instead. It covered all of their faces except a narrow strip around the eyes, and came down over their shoulders as well. With long-sleeved blouses and long skirts, it was enough to hide their identities without looking out of place. There was a bit of a cultural push for more strict interpretations of modesty, and most of the adherents wore the niqab, which was otherwise more of a Gulf-state thing.

Steph didn’t really care. She’d gotten used to wearing several variations of local clothes, and to her surprise the long layers of dark fabric weren’t stifling hot like she would’ve expected. And she felt safely anonymous, where she would’ve been noticed if her whole face and very light blonde hair were visible. Cass wasn’t as comfortable, feeling as if her movement was restricted, but Steph wasn’t planning on doing any running or fighting when she was incognito.

She made her way unremarked to the shop, and waited in line, listening to conversations around her out of habit. Someone’s cousin was getting married, and the two young men murmuring about it sounded both excited for the new groom, and a little jealous. Someone else was on the phone, talking business. And two teenage girls were complaining about their mothers. Steph grinned; some things were universal.

The line moved forward, and the woman at the head of it walked to the doors with her package of sfinz. Steph’s mouth watered, smelling both honey and date molasses, and she glanced up at the woman with a smile. Of course, no one could see her mouth, but she’d learned how to decipher expressions from just the eyes, and presumably so could everyone else who lived here. Amazing how much information was in a person’s eyes…

This woman’s eyes, behind a niqab like her own, were a piercing light green. They glanced through Steph – then suddenly she looked back, more intent. Something about her was sharper than her surroundings, somehow, as if she were in focus and the rest of the people in the shop weren’t.

Making eye contact had been a mistake. They weren’t supposed to draw attention to themselves, and the last thing Steph needed was someone deciding that she wasn’t being quite modest enough. She should’ve avoided drawing attention to herself.

Lucky for her, shyness was considered a good thing. Steph looked down at the ground, trying to seem humble. The woman swept past her without a word, and Steph breathed out. Hell, maybe the woman had mistaken Steph for one of the young firebrands, and thought she’d been about to be judged somehow.

She ordered her breakfast – brunch, really – in a polite murmur, paid, and headed back to their rooms. On the way, she overheard another murmured conversation, and slowed her steps. Steph couldn’t linger; Sabha was a large town, but not so large that she could easily vanish into a crowd. And the place was surrounded by desert, making it difficult to leave unnoticed.

Two men were talking softly as they walked, and Steph kept her head down, trying to match their pace, listening hard. “The daughter will not come?” one asked gruffly.

She has other concerns. And she fears the lady. She will not come here, unless he forces her hand, and then they will both come, with reinforcements,” the second replied, with a contemptuous tone.

The way the first said the daughter sounded like a title, and Steph knew Shiva’s people had a reason to worry about a daughter. The Daughter of the Demon, Talia al Ghul, might be expected to come here and put down Shiva’s rebellion. He’d said the lady too, and that could mean Lady Shiva.

Steph risked a careful glance. She didn’t recognize the second man, but the first was one she’d seen before, in the north. So they probably were Shiva’s, and they probably were talking about the Demon’s Daughter, and oh boy, if they looked too closely at her and noticed anything out of the ordinary, things could get ugly fast .

Even while her mind was calculating the best routes of escape and conjuring up thoroughly unhelpful worst-case scenarios, Steph kept listening in. The first man asked, “You’re bold, to speak ill of your former master.”

The second chuckled. “ You are bold, my friend, to rebel against our former master. And frankly, I am exhausted by the quarrels between father and daughter. Family strife like that should not affect a great cause like ours. We were promised a purpose, a duty to the entire world. It isn’t right to turn men like us into babysitters.”

Be careful. The lady respects them both,” the first man said. They were coming to a cross-street, and Steph hoped they kept on. If they turned, and she turned to follow them, they’d surely notice. The League of Shadows trained its men well, if not quite as well as Batman trained his Robins.

Good. She won’t be foolhardy when we face them. It is time for a change in management. The lady’s goals are more in line with what we should be. But that will not make the fight against them an easy one.”

This time, the first man chuckled. “It will be easier, once we take the compound in the Tribesti Mountains. It is well-defended.”

Indeed. The problem with making a fortress your stronghold is that you must take it first. I assume you have plans?” The second man looked dubious.

Of course. Not here.” The first man glanced around, hesitating, and Steph was glad she’d only been watching them with peripheral vision. She passed them, continuing on, and they turned down the road. Steph let out a sigh, glad to be away from danger, and quickened her pace. At least she had a solid clue.

She passed the woman from the shop, lingered at a market stall, and Steph’s feverish mind wondered if she’d been listening to the men, too. It would’ve taken more surveillance skill than Steph had, to stay in front of them and still hear them, without attracting notice. No, coincidences did happen, this was the main marketing street where everyone did their shopping. It didn’t have to mean anything.

The whole detective side of things wasn’t her strong suit, and she knew it. Bruce would’ve already calculated the odds, given the population size and time of day, that this woman was here purposefully or by random chance. And frankly, no matter how unlikely it was, he would automatically assume she was also spying on the men. Or spying on Steph. They called him the World’s Greatest Detective for his insights and skillful deductions … but his own people also called him the World’s Biggest Paranoid, behind his back.

Tim had turned purple, trying not to laugh out loud, when Steph said that. And once he could breathe properly again, he admitted Dick had a similar nickname for Batman.

Steph sighed, missing all of them. The boys, the Birds, Bruce himself, the Titans, hell, even missing Crown Point. She liked Africa, she’d loved being able to do things that mattered in South Sudan, and here in the north she liked the food and the people, too. But none of it was home, and she couldn’t forget that this was a dangerous part of the world, just now. Even more dangerous for her and Cass, trying to tiptoe around the League of Shadows.

She made it back to their room, and found Cass awake, blinking at her. “I brought breakfast, and a clue,” Steph said brightly, handing over the food.

Cass sat up sharply at that, her eyes widening, and Steph related the whole morning’s adventure as they portioned out the sfinz. “So it sounds like we’re headed south again,” she said. One thing still bothered her. “I’m just being spooked out by the woman in the shop, right? Nobody else is working this case.”

None of ours,” Cass replied, warily. She reached out and tapped Steph’s chest. “Trust instincts. You noticed her. Could be important.”

Steph frowned. “Yeah, but it’s damn hard to track down somebody based on a few seconds passing in the street. These clothes work a little too well as a disguise. I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup…”

She trailed off thoughtfully, and Cass waited. “Maybe I could,” Steph said. “You get all kinds of eye colors around here, a lot of dark, but mine aren’t that unusual. Neither is green. Hers were a very light green, though. I might know her, if I saw her again.”

Cass stared at her. “Talia al Ghul has green eyes,” she finally said.

Now that was extra super-spooky, and Steph shivered. “No way ,” she whispered. “Those guys were saying she wouldn’t be here. And even if she was, wouldn’t she be running around with, like, a literal army?”

Cass only shrugged. “The men could be wrong. Talia could be hiding. Must tell Oracle.”

And Oracle might just pull them out, for that. Steph felt relieved … and then a stubborn little spark rose up in her. She hated being treated like a invalid, even if she probably technically was one. It was far too much like being a failure. For a wild moment, she considered telling Cass not to say anything…

But common sense prevailed. “Yeah, okay, let’s update her.” She pulled out the netbook, careful not to get any sticky-sweet date molasses on it, and fired it up.

Cass snuggled close at her side as Steph ran through the verification protocols and waited for Babs to reply. As usual, she came in quickly, despite how late it was in Gotham. Steph trusted in the encryption software, and typed in a summary of her morning. Including the woman who’d seemed to take notice of her.

Babs’ response took a bit longer than she would’ve thought. I’d tell you to pull out, if I thought you’d go.

That was … more candid than she’d expected, and Steph leaned back from the screen. “What the…?” she muttered, then shook her head. You think it’s Talia?

I think it’s dangerous, no matter what, Babs replied. If Talia is there, it’s even more dangerous, intolerably so. We have a general location now, thanks to your investigation. I could send agents to look further into it.

Cass shook her head, frowning. Steph typed quickly, You already have agents here. C’mon Oracle, what are we trained for?

NOT stopping a civil war within the League of Shadows! The reply came back so fast that Steph could see Babs in her mind’s eye, typing furiously.

Steph sighed, and gritted her teeth. Well, you said it yourself. We wouldn’t leave anyway. So are you gonna send the Birds to sit on us?

A pause, and Cass kissed her shoulder, watching quietly. Then the green text rolled across the screen again. The truth is, I CAN’T . Joker’s awake. He appears cognizant, with some memory loss, and partial paralysis. They suspect brain damage. *I* suspect he’s faking it all. We’re barely holding a lid on this town. Everyone is trying to take over his position. Harley’s still free, too.

That sent a shiver down Steph’s spine. Carefully, she typed back, Sounds like it’d be almost as dangerous back home.

I’m aware of that. I’m also aware that I can’t force Batgirl to leave Shiva’s trail. And that you won’t leave her. So as long as you’re ONLY doing surveillance, I have to admit leaving you in place is the best option.

Steph sighed, looking at Cass. “Well, we’ve got clearance to keep following her. For now. You good with that, Batgirl?”

Cass nodded, and Steph narrowed her eyes. “We’re only watching. Once we know exactly where Shiva is, or exactly what she wants, we call it in and leave it to the big guns. That’s why we work for Babs, remember? She has more experience than both of us, so she makes the calls.”

Just the slightest hesitation before Cass nodded again. And when Steph continued staring at her, she spoke reluctantly. “Yes.”

Turning back to the keyboard, Steph typed, OK, we’re on watch only. I made sure Cass agrees. If we get anything concrete, we’ll call it in.

Good. Be careful, both of you. You’re a long way from home.

Steph signed off, thinking nothing had ever been so uncomfortably true.

 

 

Afterward, Jay lit a cigarette and offered it to Kala. She shook her head, burrowing into his side with a content sigh, and he grinned at her. “I take it that was worth the flight?”

That smile, it never failed to warm you, even when it was somewhat lost in a fall of black hair. “You’re always worth the flight,” she murmured, slipping an arm around his waist, tossing her tumbled hair out of her eyes to steal a kiss before settling back again. “Even when we only have time to patrol. This’s the only part of my life that’s going right, these days.”

Okay, when coming to Gotham to beat up gangsters and supervillains is the only thing going right, you really need to reexamine some shit,” Jay managed to laugh. “Kicking your asswipe manager out was a good first step, though. Maybe you can get some sanity back in the other half of your life.”

Kala looked up at him, her hazel eyes serious. “Most people would be telling me to ditch the band, and come spend more time with them.”

Most people are assholes. Not that I’m not an asshole, too, I just want you to be happy. And until this run with the jerkwad manager and things with your co-singer going haywire, you fuckin’ loved being a singer. Remember how pissed you got when I asked you why that, of all careers?” Jay raised his brows at her, worrying. Maybe she really was going to flush the rock star gig down the drain, and he didn’t like any move that drastic.

It’s not fun anymore,” she whispered with a thoughtful expression, her tone longing. “I mean, it was always more work than people think, but … everything I loved about it is just gone. I don’t even look at the forums anymore, it’s too damn toxic. If it wasn’t for the boys and the fans, I’d hang it up right now.”

Jay knew why. Some of it – a lot of it – was the manager being a dickwad. But the biggest change in her life recently was Sebast walking out. That was the main reason why the whole KLK thing was a drain right now.

It made Jay feel guilty, in a way, because if she and Sebast had sorted things out, he wouldn’t be dating Kala now. And if Sebast hadn’t left, Kala might not be over here every chance she could get, looking for someone who understood her.

He had no idea what to tell her. Emotional support wasn’t really his strong suit, anyway, and Jay had very few friends in his life, so he didn’t quite know how to sympathize with losing one. He also hadn’t had a driving passion turn sour on him the way she had. Reading never went stale, and it wasn’t a performance type of thing that could turn problematic. Jay found himself utterly at a loss for words. But she had once said he just needed to be there. Maybe he was already doing enough.

I dunno, K,” Jay finally said. “I guess … don’t give up yet. If you wanna throw in the towel, I understand that. The last thing you are is a quitter. If you’re even thinking about giving it up, it’s been hell. But you worked too long and fought too hard for this. At least wait until after New Year’s. Maybe things will turn around. Besides, your hundreds of thousands of screaming fans will wanna see you. I sure can’t blame them, I look forward to seeing you, too. So, maybe hold on a little longer? I’m not gonna turn into a pumpkin if you can’t be here every day.”

She looked up at him, those huge hazel eyes filled with something Jay couldn’t name, and then Kala closed them on a sigh, giving him a brief smile. “I don’t deserve you, you know that?” she whispered, curling into his side.

Jay startled a bit at that. “Yeah, well, you put up with me gracefully despite that.”

He’d hoped Kala would snark back at him for that, but she only cuddled as close as possible, as if the cure for her unhappiness could somehow infuse from his skin to hers.

Part of him wanted to run from anything that so much as hinted at need … but oh, God, he needed her too. Kala blew into his life like a whirlwind, opening doors he’d thought were barred forever; she made him feel in ways he hadn’t been able or hadn’t let himself since the Pit. She was good for him, and the thought of losing her made him nauseous. He didn’t want anyone depending on him, because his life was a long series of spectacular fuck-ups and the less collateral damage he caused, the better. But Kala … maybe it didn’t have to be like that with Kala.

So Jay held her tighter, kissed her forehead, and rubbed her shoulders, hoping she could manage to get some rest here with him. She nuzzled even closer, wanting every inch of contact she could get, and Jay realized all over again just how warm she was. Without the layers of his uniform, the apartment was cold, but Kala damn near sizzled wherever he touched her. “Is it really that damn cold in here, or are you just that hot?” he asked, the double meaning catching him only after he’d said it.

Kala laughed, brushing her nose against his chin; the very tip of her nose was a little cold, while the rest of her was sauna-warm. “Both?” she ventured, her eyes sparkling. “Is both an option?”

Yeah, both is an option,” Jay chuckled, and the hell with it. No one else was around to give him grief about being cutesy, so he snuggled up to her.

Even if Babs had snuck cameras into his apartment – which he was pretty sure she wouldn’t do – he could always claim it was just about the weather. Kala was a whole lot more comfortable to cuddle than a hot water bottle.

Chapter Text

Richard breezed into Lois’ office at eleven-thirty and asked, “Hey, Lo, there’s a new Thai place on 38th street. Wanna swing by for lunch?”

She chuckled at him. “Trying to butter up your boss again?”

He crossed his arms and grinned. “I almost married you, that should’ve been enough sacrifice for a lifetime of preferential treatment. No, I just thought you’d enjoy the chance to conquer something hotter than you are.”

“No such thing exists, not even Thai curry,” Lois replied automatically. Then she remembered her plans for the day, and sighed. “I’ll have to go tomorrow. I’ve got lunch plans today.”

Richard waggled his brows at her. “Oh, Clark’s gonna sweep you away for a nooner? Good man. Just not the supply closet, okay?”

She threw a paperclip at him. “Dammit, Richard, that was almost twenty years ago, let it go. But no, I’m not having lunch with Clark.” He was out on assignment today – reporting, not heroing, for once.

Her ex-fiance looked at her curiously. “Really? Meeting the girls at Dooley’s? Or a mysterious source?”

Lois couldn’t help grinning. “Actually I’m meeting an attractive younger man.”

Richard smirked. “I am an attractive man, but if it’s got to be younger, make sure he knows what the hell he’s doing. Send the cougar-bait my regards.”

She scoffed laughter, picking up her purse; it was time to head out, anyway. She kissed Richard’s cheek as she passed him – standing in the doorway, of course, so the old guard could listen to the eternal joking and roll their eyes – and whispered, “He really wouldn’t know. It’s Sebast.”

He turned at that, with a relieved smile. “Thank God he’s talking to someone . Give him a hug for me, okay? I remember what a head trip it was.”

Lois shrugged. “At least he wasn’t trying to fly a plane.” They both grinned, remembering how Richard found out about Clark’s alter ego, and she headed out.

The restaurant had been picked for privacy, but Lois knew the food was good. She got there five minutes early, but even so Sebast was already there, standing just outside the doors. “Hi,” he said, looking sheepish and awkward.

She stopped, smiling at him, and then caught his arm to pull him in for a hug. “Hi, Sebast. We’ve missed you.”

I missed you guys too,” he mumbled against her shoulder, and Lois could feel the tension in him. He felt like he’d needed a hug for days, and could stand there just sinking into her arms for hours.

Lois rubbed his back gently, and murmured, “And everyone would completely understand if you were totally pissed, too.”

That startled a laugh from him, drawing back, and Lois patted his arm. “To a certain degree, I was when I found out. Come on, let’s go inside. We’re both public figures, and Richard already implied I was sneaking out for a quickie.”

Sebast spluttered, shaking his head. “Dios m í o, I don’t wanna hear that. Jeez, Mom, way to make me never hug you again.”

If all this with Kala hasn’t made you drop out, getting called cougar bait won’t do it either,” Lois quipped back as they headed in. She took a table toward the back, and Sebast sat down beside her, the better to keep their conversation private.

He looked nervous; hell, that was being generous. Sebast looked like he hadn’t slept for a week and was holding it together with coffee alone. So the first thing Lois asked him, once their drink orders were in, was, “Are you okay?”

No?” he said with a little laugh. “I mean, every damn day since I found out, it’s another revelation. And I’m still kinda paranoid about my phone, once I heard from Oracle.”

Lois scoffed a little. “She got you, huh? That side of the group is kind of … overprotective.”

Paranoid,” Sebast said. “Elise had a few choice words to say, too.”

Elise is still pissed. Oracle’s probably not watching your phone, Sebast. She’s got a lot on her plate, like being the information broker for the entire League. You didn’t fly off the handle and call the press in the first forty-eight hours, so you’re unlikely to do it now.”

He frowned at her. “Damn, you’ve all done this enough that you know what the window is for freaking out and calling the Inquirer?”

Sadly, yes. There are a lot of people out there doing this kind of thing, Sebast. All of them try to have real lives, as much as possible. That means keeping secrets … and eventually the people they love either find out, or get told.” Lois looked at him frankly, seeing an echo of herself. The wonder was there, that sense of awe that she’d felt watching Clark straighten up and lower his voice to Superman’s rich timbre. Also the frustration, at how the few parts of ‘normal’ life she wanted for herself kept getting postponed or denied.

He rubbed the side of his face, where stubble had been allowed to grow. “It’s just … a lot. I mean I’m still getting over him . Also aren’t there photos of him and, y’know, the alter ego?”

Lois nodded. “We’ve got a couple shapeshifters. If her identity had ever been compromised, we’d arrange for them to be photographed together. It’s all about protecting people, Sebast. Especially the ones who aren’t in the game. I’m not a civilian, anymore, but you are. And almost everyone out there has civilians to protect. There are some who try to stick with other capes, but that has its own issues.”

Seems to be working for her,” Sebast sighed, and the waiter approached with their drinks. Sebast had gone for a rum and coke; Lois had to go back to work, so she’d gotten coffee. Neither of them had glanced at the menu, but Lois glanced at it long enough to order a mushroom swiss burger, and Sebast picked out something similar with bacon and pepper jack cheese.

Once they were alone again, Lois said, “She didn’t plan on this, Sebast. She’s always stayed away from capes – she doesn’t have the best relationship with the community, because she started later than Jase, even. They think she can be like him, or like her father, leading a team, and they don’t know she has a real job that she can’t just ditch anytime. Or they do know, and they think she’s crazy for trying to do both.”

He sipped his drink thoughtfully. “Yeah, that is kind of a mind trip. Just to think of everything she’s had to juggle. And then, how did I not see it? I mean, I’ve lived with her and never noticed this!”

I worked across from her father for a couple years and never noticed,” Lois replied with a sad smile. “At least in your case, the Blur was barely on your radar. I was interviewing him every chance I got. Once, right before a date with Clark.”

Sebast’s mouth twitched up in a grin. “Oh, that’s just rude.”

Lois sighed and shrugged. “I was a real ball-breaker back in the day. He got a kick out of giving me some of my own medicine. The point is, no one looks at Clark and thinks, him . Just like no one looks at the singer in a Goth band and thinks her . Just like no one looks at the nerdy farmer and thinks of who he is. They’re good at what they do.”

Aw man, I can’t even think about Jason. Like I see it, now, but you’d think he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.” Sebast winced, rubbing his temple. “It makes my head hurt, Lo. I don’t know how you keep up.”

Have you seen my friends? My life has always been crazy. He just kicked it up a notch. Or three.” Lois chuckled a little.

Oh my God. All your friends are reporters. You practically raised the twins in the newsroom. How the hell did you hide that?” Sebast’s eyes had gone wide with the fresh revelation.

They didn’t start to show any differences until they were about six, and not long after that, they learned the hard way why it was better for no one outside the family to know,” Lois replied, gritting her teeth. If not for a mirror, she would’ve ended her family’s nightmares on that yacht eighteen years ago, putting a bullet in Luthor’s head. “When someone’s life depends on it, you get real good at keeping secrets. Too good, sometimes.”

Sebast nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think that’s where she is right now. Which, okay. How did you find out? And how did you get over being lied to?”

Lois laughed at that. “Well, honestly, I started to suspect because I was always around one or the other, but they were never in the same room. If one turned up, the other had just disappeared seconds ago. Not to mention, the hero had become a little standoffish, and the man was being just a little forward. Forward for him, anyway. They were both sending mixed signals. What cinched it was seeing a side by side photo set of both of them. Then I knew, and I was out to prove it.”

How’d you manage it?” Sebast asked, with a little grin.

She couldn’t help rolling her eyes at her younger self. “Jumped out a sixtieth floor window. And into the rapids below Niagara Falls. And when he managed to fake that out, I got sick of it and shot him.”

Sebast’s eyes went wide with shock. “You shot him?!”

It was a blank, relax,” she chuckled. “He didn’t know that. He heard the shot and scolded me, said that if I’d been wrong, my friend would’ve died. And smartass me just grinned and told him about the blank. I wish I’d had a camera.”

Damn, all I had to do was punch a wall, find a costume, and call and ask,” Sebast said, shaking his head. “What about afterward? How’d you handle the lies?”

Lois gave a chagrined laugh. “Yeah, I don’t think our aftermath will work for you. See, Kala and Jason were born exactly ten months later. And boy, was I pissed at him then.”

Ten months?” Sebast asked, arching a brow.

Their gestation is longer than ours. If I hadn’t been carrying twins, they might’ve gone to eleven. So yeah, we got the after sorted pretty quickly. But then, all the other stuff happened.” There was a wealth of sorrow, even now, looking back on those days, as her belly grew and she stared up at the sky, at first with longing, then with grief, finally with fear.

Sebast propped his chin on his hand, looking at her thoughtfully. “I don’t actually know all the other stuff. I know Kala didn’t meet her dad until she was almost six, and you used to be engaged to Mr. White, but there was some story about Clark being out of the country or something. I guess … I should’ve looked it up.”

Lois sighed, and glanced around the restaurant again before speaking. The waiter arrived with their food, and she waited until he was out of earshot before replying. “He was gone, all right. He thought – he was made to think – that Krypton might still exist. And with everything that happened … hell, Sebast, the day after I found out about him was when Zod came to town.”

He bristled at that name, then the implication hit. “Oh no. I did read up on that – he was missing, when they first arrived?”

Chagrined, Lois told him, “Distracted. The way it all came down, he thought he had to give up his powers to be with me. So he didn’t know, when they first arrived. And when we ventured out into the light of day again, that was the first news he heard.” She was leaving out a great deal, but Sebast didn’t need to know all of that. “After it was all over, he thought he couldn’t have me and the cape, and not even I could disagree that the world needed the cape. So … we split. And it broke my heart. His, too. He couldn’t bear to see me hurt, so he found a way to make me forget what we had. And forget who he was, because I already knew Clark was head over heels for me. Before too long, it was killing him to be the only one who remembered, so when he saw the news about a home that might still exist, he went to see for himself.”

She sighed, shaking her head. What fools they had all been. “Problem was, not only did he not tell his press liaison that he was about to leave for almost six years, I was already pregnant with those two. Nobody was ready for that news.”

Sebast shuddered. “I can’t even imagine. And hell, he took your memory – did you even know how they happened?”

I got the memories back eventually,” Lois replied. “Damn near drove myself crazy chasing after them until I managed to break through the mental block. And when I did, my heart broke all over again, because the guy I loved left me alone, in the dark, and pregnant. Anyway, now you know why I sound ready to kill him, if you read any of the articles I wrote just after he showed back up.”

Taking a sip of his drink, Sebast could only shrug. “He is lucky you didn’t outright kill his ass. Although, that’d be pretty hard to accomplish.”

I could’ve found a way,” Lois admitted. “Problem was, I was still in love with him, too. A fact that did not escape the guy I was engaged to at the time, who happened to be a fanboy with S-shield decals on the wings of his seaplane.”

Ouch,” Sebast winced. “God, that far back?”

Smirking, Lois added, “Oh yeah. Don’t worry, the fact that he was still in love with me didn’t escape anyone’s notice either. Including the hometown girl high school crush turned millionaire who’d just rolled into Metropolis wanting to know if he was still single.”

He almost choked on a bite of the burger. “You are all terrible people. Dios m í o, at least you’re making all my bullshit look salvageable.”

It was a powder keg. We got lucky – when everything went sideways, we all put the bullshit aside to save the kids. And came out of it still friends with each other, even if it took a while to get as comfortable as we are now. Of course, you have a different set of challenges.” Lois looked at him with a sympathetic eye. He’d known Kala younger, and was more wrapped up in her life than Lois had been with Clark. The pressure from his parents – who were so far in denial that they might as well buy a riverboat – didn’t help either.

For a few moments, they ate in silence, wrapped up in their own thoughts. Sebast washed down another bite of the burger with a large swallow of his drink, and sighed. “Well, at least we’ve got one thing going for us. At least she’s not pregnant. Although that was well over a year ago now anyway.”

That made Lois’ fries go down the wrong way, and she had to cough until her eyes watered. Alarmed, Sebast patted her shoulder, muttering, “Shit, shit, shit , I forgot you didn’t know about that! Sorry, I’m sorry, forget I said anything.”

Lois finally managed to catch her breath, and laughed a little. The waiter had started their way, looking alarmed, and she waved him off, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin. “Well, you certainly managed to make it complicated for yourself.” When he looked away, miserable and embarrassed, Lois caught his chin and tilted his face back up. “Oh, honey. You two always did love each other more than any convenient label for it.”

Yeah, well, now she’s dating someone else, and that’s my fault,” Sebast said. “In a way, I kept secrets from her, too. I can’t mess with what she has with him, though. She loves this guy. A lot. He gets her.”

So do you,” Lois pointed out.

I thought so, but there’s a whole other half to her life that I knew nothing about,” he replied, with a flicker of pain in his eyes.

Lois rapped him lightly on the nose. “Him, too. He’s never really had a civilian life. He was in this game from like thirteen. That’s what he knows. And Kala won’t give up being a singer. You thought Dustin couldn’t handle the vagabond rock star life, there’s no way in hell you’ll get him on a tour bus.”

Sebast shrugged, pulling away slightly. “I just… Stuff I thought was only in newspapers, that only happened to other people, now it’s dumped in my lap. No matter what I do now, my life’s never gonna be the same, because anyone who knows about her is gonna assume I make a good hostage.”

Lois’ smile was cold and sharp. “Anyone who thinks that about you is going to find out real fast that she has her mother’s temper. I’d feel sorry for them, honestly. The rest of us won’t take kindly to it either. We protect our own, in this family.”

That’s the same as it ever was,” Sebast said, but she could see that it heartened him to hear it anyway.

Also, most people don’t have the first clue about her. There’s one that knows, but most of the bad guys think she’s something else entirely.” Never had Lois been so happy about Kala’s iconoclastic streak. It hurt her, sometimes, not to wear the family crest. But she was different enough in temperament and fashion sense that so far no one suspected she was a Super.

Sebast sighed again, lost in thought for a few moments. “Lo, how do you deal with all this shit? The person you thought you knew has a whole other world to them. How do you reconcile that?”

She leaned back in her seat, regarding him. “Sebast, that’s true of any relationship. You think you know someone inside and out, but unless you’ve been there every day since they were born, you don’t. Ask Jason and Kala, even if you were there every day, you weren’t inside their head to see what they thought about everything. It’s like … out at the Kent farm, there’s that big field, the one the mules hang out in? And I’ve been there plenty of times, I’ve walked all over that property, I watched my kids learn to ride in that pasture. If you asked me, I’d say I know it pretty well. But last year I was walking across the same way I always do, taking a shortcut from the barn to the front yard where I parked the car, and I managed to put my foot in a hole and twist my ankle.”

Sebast frowned, chewing his burger, and she continued, “Clark knew that hole was there; he’s the one who mowed that field as a kid. It’s a spot they’ve filled in before, but it’s right behind a tree root and that’s just how the rain collects and washes out the soil right there, so they keep having to fill it back in. He knows that, because he knows every rock and stump and hollow on that land. I thought I did. But the thing is, the grass in that little spot grows just as high as everything around it, so you can’t see it until you step in it. People are like that, too, Sebast. I’ve know Clark almost thirty years, and every once in a while he surprises me. What I thought was a level patch of grass has a hidden rise or dip in it. You … this secret’s a little more like falling into a cave, but that happens to people all the time, too. They think they know their land, and then a tree comes down on a hillside and opens up a tiny spring into an actual cavern. Everyone has worlds inside them we don’t know about.”

That was clearly a sobering thought, and Sebast leaned his chin on his palm, turning it over in his mind. “So what do you do? When you step onto what you thought was firm ground and fall into a cave?”

Keep loving them anyway,” Lois told him. “They’re still the same person as before. It doesn’t change everything you’ve said and done together. You still know them. You don’t have to know every blade of grass in a field to make it part of your home. People do it every day. Maybe not as dramatically as this, but since when have you shied from drama?” She smiled at that, arching a brow.

He smiled back slowly. “This is why everyone loves you. And why you won a Pulitzer. You’ve got a gift for putting things in exactly the right words.”

Lois scoffed. “I didn’t at your age. Or a few years later when I was scrambling to deal with him. Hell, Sebast, at least you didn’t have to make yourself believe a man can fly.”

His chuckle warmed her heart, and Lois let herself believe that it was going to be all right. She shrugged. “We love them. What else can we do? Not like we get much choice.”

Amen to that,” Sebast said staunchly.

 

 

The band were unremarkable in the main concourse at LAX. Morgan had the earliest flight, back to Metropolis, and Ned’s plane left for New Orleans half an hour later. They’d both gotten nonstop flights, and the airfare was surprisingly cheap considering the distance. Perks of flying out of a large hub.

Everyone thought Kala was leaving an hour later, going to Kansas City. Which she was, but she hadn’t actually bought a plane ticket. Her way was both faster and greener, and the carry-on bag she’d brought contained her Blur uniform. That’d be less conspicuous than flying around in her regular clothes.

Robb was staying; he was from California anyway, and he had invited Jennifer to his parents’ Thanksgiving dinner. Her folks were in Minnesota, and she was going home for Christmas this year, staying in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. She and Robb had driven the others to the airport, and Kala made sure to hug her tightly. “Take good care of my bassist,” she said, smiling. They were going to be gone for the four-day weekend, a longer separation since the beginning of this tour.

“Oh, I will,” Jennifer promised with a roguish grin, and beside her Robb turned an interesting shade of pink.

“Don’t kill him, Jennifer,” Kala laughed.

“He’ll be fine. Just hope his parents don’t kill me.” She had a professional smile that Kala had seen, all perfectly capped teeth, but this one was her crooked grin that meant she was really happy. And Kala was happy for both of them.

Now maybe Kala herself might be able to put her own life together.

Ned hugged her next, resting his chin on her head, and said, “Tell the mechanic we miss him. And don’t run his girlfriend off, she was nice.”

Yes, sir,” Kala laughed, face buried in his shoulder. “Tell your mom we miss her, too. And tell your cousin not to give up on that rockabilly thing, I like their sound.”

Morgan hugged her last, while Robb and Ned were playfully punching each other and Jennifer rolled her eyes at them. When Morgan stepped back, he caught Kala’s shoulders. “You gonna be all right?”

Yeah,” she sighed. “It’s only a few more shows until Christmas break. I’ve got this, we can work it out. And tomorrow all I have to do is eat and harass my cousins.”

He nodded. “Do you think the label’s gonna call you in?”

Kala stretched her neck. “Pretty sure they will. But fuck ‘em, I told them we’d see after the holiday. Whatever happens, I’m not giving up.”

Morgan gave her one more hug, and then said sternly, “I’m fuckin’ proud of you, Kala.”

Her smile wavered; he tended to see through her facade a little better than the rest. Then again, of the remaining band, Morgan had been here the longest. He’d only signed up to teach her and Sebast to play guitar, at the very beginning, and she’d sweet-talked him into joining another band. He’d since admitted he only agreed because he was trying to figure out how to ask Kala out – meanwhile Sebast had wanted to ask him out. Things had settled out for the best, but he’d known them both long enough that the fight, and the breakup, weighed more on his mind than it did on Ned and Robb.

I’m proud of me, too,” Kala said, flashing false confidence in her smile. Morgan shook his head; he knew better. But now wasn’t the time to call her out.

With a few last goodbyes, they all went their separate ways, Kala heading down a different concourse from Morgan and Ned. She slowed down, picking her spot carefully, aware of cameras in the ceiling.

It wasn’t cold in Los Angeles, but Kala had worn a long, lightweight coat anyway. It made sense for the colder climate she was heading to, though she really wanted it for concealment. She slipped into a bathroom and quickly changed into her uniform, buttoning the coat over the suit and pulled her hair back into a bun. Her regular clothes went into the carry-on.

Then all she had to do was walk past a sign that read ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ like it didn’t apply to her, and quickly make her way outside. She took off from close to the terminal, and launched fast . Not sonic-boom fast, but quick enough that she’d only be a brief, concerning blip on the control tower’s radar.

Kala leveled off at sixty thousand feet, well above the planes, and started soaring eastward. She was heading home , and already felt the stress of the tour rolling off her.

 

 

Thanksgiving, and everyone was at the Manor. Babs and Dinah had come over, they’d roped Helena into it, Tim emerged from his room over an hour before the food hit the table, and Selina dropped by. Jay didn’t know that until her cat stole a shrimp right out of his hand, and had the audacity to eat it sitting right next to him. “Are you fuckin’ serious?” he complained. The cat glanced up, green-gold eyes somehow far too knowing, and then dismissed him utterly.

He took another shrimp from the appetizers spread out on the coffee table, looking around the living room for some sympathy. Dick was trying to convince someone to play board games, and so far only Dinah had taken the bait, but she refused Monopoly outright. Babs was watching the news on her tablet even as she munched on some canapes. Tim was on his phone, texting – either Sandsmark or Superboy, Jay didn’t know which. Bruce was reading something, too, and when Jay glanced over, he realized with a snort that it was Capespotting. “Whatever you do, B-man, don’t read the fanfic,” he laughed.

Bruce arched an eyebrow at him, but the damn cat stepped onto his shoulder, leaning out to steal the next shrimp. “No,” Jay said firmly, and the cat blinked at him. Then she moved toward the shrimp again, and he pulled it out of her reach. “I said no , dammit, you’re a cat. Cats don’t get hors d’ouvres.”

She doesn’t know that. And Miss Kitty wouldn’t listen even if she did,” Selina said, walking up behind the couch and running a gentle hand down her cat’s spine. She got a purr in response, and took a napkin, picking out a selection of appetizers that she piled on it before placing them on the arm of the sofa.

Miss Kitty settled down to eat them happily, and Jay shook his head even as Selina sat down beside him. “You’re feeding her caviar , Selina. Seriously?”

Not too much,” she protested. “It’s too salty to be good for her, but she just wants a taste of what we have.”

Yeah, she needs to not steal mine,” Jay grumbled, reaching for one of the fruit and cheese skewers next. “Does she get the theft from you, or do you get it from her?”

Selina rolled her eyes at him, but Babs spoke up then. “I’m less interested in a cat or cat burglar debate, and more interested in a bank robbery.”

Barbara,” Bruce said warningly.

Babs looked up at him, unimpressed, and then turned to Selina. “What does Harley need a million dollars for?”

Jay had to admire Selina’s moxie. He’d seen coverage of the robbery, sure, and there was nothing there to prove Selina had been involved … but they all knew she was. And yet Bruce hadn’t said a word when she arrived, and now she was sitting with her legs crossed nibbling on caviar, just as bold as her cat.

She swallowed, and smiled at Babs. “Well, I’m hoping she’ll use it for running money. She and Pam are kinda tossing around the idea of getting out of this town.”

Bruce frowned at her, and Jay just leaned against the arm of the couch, letting it play out. “Selina. Do you know where Harley is?”

Green eyes narrowed, and Jay wanted to chuck a pillow at Bruce. Way to ruin a nice relaxing Thanksgiving with family, and Alfred would probably have some very droll words to say if they managed to have a huge fight before the turkey was even on the table. But instead of getting pissed, Selina just shrugged. “Of course not. Bruce, you know I want the best for her. She’s my friend . If I had any idea where she was right now, I’d tell you.”

Jay looked across at Babs, who’d raised a skeptical brow. Dinah and Dick, who had settled on Risk and somehow convinced Helena to join them, even turned around at those words. Tim didn’t look up from his phone, but he was definitely listening.

Joker’s awake. Harley isn’t safe, wherever she is.” Bruce stated that without ever admitting he doubted Selina.

She licked a bit of crème fraiche off her thumb. “I know. Arkham’s for damn sure not safe, either. If she gets locked up, Bruce, you might as well paint a target on her back, because he’ll know right where she is and how to get to her. Harley’s never going to be safe while he’s alive, not after this. But then, who’s safe? None of us are. This house is pretty secure, but we all have to go out in the world sometime. Hell, I could get hit by a bus crossing the street tomorrow.”

The cat walked across Jay’s shoulders to curl up on Selina’s, purring, and Selina petted her head gently. Bruce just sighed. “This is not going to end well. You know that the same as I do.”

Selina arched a brow, and turned to Jay. “Hey, Hood, you got any immediate plans to kill Joker while he’s still in the hospital?”

The bald way she asked it made him laugh. “Fuck, Selina, if I was gonna do it, it’d already be done. Can’t say I haven’t thought about it, but shit, you’d all know it was me.”

A wave of unease passed through the room, but Selina turned to Babs next. “What about you? I bet you could hack his monitors and triple his dose of morphine. No one would ever guess it was anything other than a malfunction.”

Babs blinked at her, and Jay didn’t laugh at her affronted expression. “One, I don’t do that. Two, the data feeds from IV pumps only go one way for a reason .”

Selina frowned. “Huh, I really thought you could make that work somehow. Then again, if you can’t do it, no one can. Helena, you don’t have personal beef with Joker, do you?”

Helena looked at her in surprise, then said, “I gave up vengeance killing some time ago, Selina.”

That got a chuckle from Selina. “You sound like you gave it up for Lent and just never started again. Okay then, that settles most of the morally-gray people in the room, except yours truly. And frankly, much as I’d like to see that bastard in the ground, the whole not-killing thing is one of the few advantages I have over your wife , Bruce.”

Jay gritted his teeth, trying not to laugh out loud at Bruce’s flummoxed expression. Selina really wasn’t pulling any punches tonight, no matter how playful she was. She looked at Jay, and put a theatrical finger to her lips. “Ooooh, there’s a thought. Maybe I should call Talia and spend that million putting out a hit on Joker. She might not want to get her hands dirty, but the League of Shadows has assassins aplenty.”

Selina,” Bruce scolded.

Bruce,” she shot back, and now Jay saw the flash of her temper. “Look, you know better than to ask me something like that. I’m not turning the girls in, even if I did know where they are, and they’re smart enough to have moved since I last saw them because everyone in this city knows we’re sleeping together. I swear, even Oswald knows there’s a line I won’t cross. I don’t dime out my friends.” A pause, and her mouth twisted. “Unless it’s the only way to keep them safe, but hell. That was only once. And locking them both up would just be dangerous now.”

What did Penguin want to know that you wouldn’t tell him?” Bruce asked, zeroing in on peripheral information the way he always did. Jay could almost admire that about him, if he hadn’t been on the receiving end of it too often.

Selina scoffed. “The same thing everyone wants to know. Pam asked me, too. I promise you this much, they’re not gonna find out we have Supergirl running around town from me .”

They damn well better not,” Jay growled, unaware that his hands were unconsciously balling into fists.

At least, until Selina pinned the heel of her shoe against his throat, looking at him without surprise. She was goddamn fast, and he wouldn’t have thought that the careless-looking way she’d been seated on the couch was a good defensive position. “ Down , boy. I said I’m not sharing that. Partly because yeah, I like the girl, she seems like something we could use a little more of around here. Mostly because when that news does break, everyone’s gonna lose their damn minds. She spooked Pam, and kicked poor Johnny’s ass, so she’s not just a Super, she’s a Kryptonian with a temper . That whole thing with the roof when the kids were in trouble? Harv better watch himself if he runs across her.”

Jay curled his lip, and shoved her foot away. “Yeah, she doesn’t have a whole lot of patience for the bullshit. She even stood up to Joker.”

Selina’s eyebrows went up. “Oh yeah? I heard a different version of that. According to Harley – who also got her ass kicked, but Kala looked after Bud and Lou, so she gets a pass – all Joker said about crossing paths with Blur was that the two of you were disgustingly overprotective. Young love, blah blah blah. Which, yeah, obvious.”

Oh fuck off,” Jay grumbled, the hair on the nape of his neck prickling. “If Bruce hadn’t called her off, she would’ve crispy-fried the miserable fuck.”

Selina leaned against the back of the couch, turned toward him. “Of course he wouldn’t tell Harley he got trashed, too. But damn, Jay, have you two heard of subtlety ?”

I’m sorry, Ms. Everyone-in-this-town-knows-I’m-banging-Batman? You’re trying to lecture me on subtlety?” Jay challenged, trying to quell the unease. He’d told Kala his history with Joker. And her reaction was to get, well, Super-protective. Turn the fucker into a greasy smear kind of protective. Forget her dad’s code or Bruce’s, she’d have broken his jaw at minimum to shut him up. That was … terrifyingly reassuring, and just plain terrifying, all at the same time. Maybe Selina had a point about how the Gotham rogues would react.

To his surprise, Selina laughed. “Look, that’s not my fault. He’s the one who keeps letting me go . Even the most cynical bastard in this town knows it means something when Batman bends his moral code. They don’t even realize I know his real name, I’m that good.”

Bruce frowned at her, and Selina just raised her eyebrows at him. Jay thought they’d stay locked into a staring match until Alfred called them all to the table, but into the silence Tim spoke up. “You don’t actually have Talia’s phone number, do you?”

Jay saw the disapproving look on Bruce’s face, and chuckled to himself, thinking that was the oddest part of that conversation to fixate on. Selina just grinned. “Yeah, I do, actually. And she’s got mine, as a matter of fact. I’m gonna make a shared calendar so we know who gets custody of Bruce when. Why, do you want me to call her up? You’re old money, too, you wanna chip in on the Joker hit fund?”

That left Jay choking on laughter, both at Selina’s droll delivery and Bruce’s horrified expression. Much to his surprise, Babs looked up thoughtfully. “Is it a rerouted number, or do you think you have her actual direct line? Because that could be extremely useful.”

Oh, it’s got to be a reroute,” Selina said. “I doubt her direct line actually rings, it’s all call forwarding through a dozen numbers so the signal can’t be tracked. Why, are you trying to track her down? Want me to call and ask just to see what she says?”

Wait, since when are you talking?” Jay cut in, because Bruce looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. “What the fuck, Selina?”

It’s the prank war,” she explained. “I signed her up for dating services, she created a fake dog training company in my name. Which Oswald already knows about, by the way, so I can hear about that for the next ten years.”

You’re pushing your luck,” Babs warned.

Dinah, however, just crossed her arms and looked at Selina thoughtfully. “How’d you get her back for the dog training thing?”

Jay saw Selina brighten with the most smugly self-satisfied smile he’d ever seen. “You’ll see. She hasn’t found it yet. Hey Babs, if you did have that number, could you track her phone through the reroutes and find out where she actually is? Because she’s not gonna get my revenge until she goes back to her place in London.”

That was enough to make Jay uneasy; he remembered Talia’s London flat too well. How the hell Selina had even gotten in … well, she was Catwoman. If she could break into his building, he guessed she could break into Talia’s place too. He just really hoped Selina hadn’t taken one of a handful of prized antique weapons stored there. That would really set Talia off. And he for damn sure didn’t want to see this whole crazy prank war thing Selina had going on blow up in her face.

Babs, however, was answering her question. “I could try, but she’s likely got safeguards against that. And I currently suspect she’s in Libya. There’s League of Shadows problems there.”

Selina sighed, flopping back against the back of the couch. “Well damn. It’s been long enough now that she probably thinks I’m just gonna let it go. I don’t want her to think I’m scared or anything.”

Please tell me you didn’t steal something from her,” Jay finally said. “I mean, we saw the bracelet, but jewelry’s not a big deal. She has plenty of it. Selina, if you took something she actually cares about…”

I didn’t take anything,” Selina insisted. “I just left her something. She’ll see it whenever she gets back to London.”

Jay rubbed a hand over his face. “If you did something ridiculous like leave a pound of Limburger cheese in her fridge, Selina, I swear…”

Relax, Hood,” Selina laughed. “I don’t do gross-outs. Besides, I’m sure she has a service to clean up before she gets back. Probably has Daddy’s henchmen do it. I don’t think any maid service would come back, with all the weapons in that place.”

Jay looked at her narrowly. “I hope to God you didn’t mess with any of her weaponry. Last I checked, she keeps some of the personal stuff in London. That engraved Python revolver that was made for a prince is locked up there, when she’s not carrying it. I know she’d kill over that gun.”

And never mind how Dick was frowning, or how calculatingly Babs and Bruce were eyeing him. They ought to know this stuff, too. Talia was particular about her weapons. She had drop guns like every other killer, but there were certain swords and knives, certain pistols like the Python, and at least one sniper rifle that Talia was very careful about. If Selina had scratched the finish on the Python, or chipped the enamel on the hilt of that one Egyptian sword, there’d be hell to pay. It wouldn’t be a series of pranks anymore, it’d just be war . And Jay liked Selina well enough to not want that to happen.

She reached out and patted his hand. “Relax, Jay. I’m not foolish enough to mess with any weapons owned by the Queen of Assassins herself. This is strictly high school, college level prank stuff. I mean, more expensive, obviously, but she can afford it. We’re both having fun with it.”

And that is the most bizarre sentence I’ve heard in my life,” Dinah declared.

Selina just shrugged. “She’s not going away. I’ve gotta deal with her if I wanna keep playing with him. And sue me, I’ve got a soft spot for big dumb handsome men who share my love of cosplay.”

Bruce just stared at her, but Tim apparently felt the need to defend him. “You do realize he exceeds all the requirements for Mensa membership, right?”

She just chuckled. “Oh yeah, he’s brilliant. World’s Greatest Detective, IQ second only to Lex Luthor, card-carrying genius. In emotional intelligence, though, he makes Forrest Gump look like Einstein.”

That made all of them laugh, with a horrified edge to it. Dick was the one who actually said, “ Damn , Selina! That is cold !”

It’s not a lie,” she said, raising her hands. “Someone has to speak truth to power. And he loves me for not ever lying, not even to make him feel better. Besides, I admit the man has come a long way. Here he is, Mr. Stoic, eating hors d’ouvres and reading the news with his whole family. Ten years ago this much domesticity would’ve sent him out the window in the Bat-suit.”

Can’t really argue that,” Jay said thoughtfully. Bruce just kept his mouth shut, which maybe proved he was smarter than even Tim though – or he just knew better than to argue with Selina when her claws were already out. “Hell, there’ve been times when most of us would head out the window. There’s a lot of fuckin’ neuroses and bad coping mechanisms in this room, not to mention some really checkered history.”

But we’re all here anyway. And I’d love to take the credit for that, but really, it’s Alfred.” Selina smiled even as she said it, looking toward the door, where Alfred had just appeared.

I’m certain I have no idea what you mean, Miss Kyle,” he told them in his most formal tones. “However, I must announce that dinner is nearly ready. I do require some assistance getting the larger items to table.”

Jay stood up, along with Dick and Tim, because helping Alfred carry plates meant getting the first chance at the food. No one would miss a small slice of turkey or a broken bit of pastry. Dick looked at him, and grinned, both of them remembering what it was like as a kid, striving for that first bite mostly because Bruce would scold them, gently, if he caught them at it. Jay’s thing had always been sneaking bits of meat off the turkey carcass while Alfred carried the carved platter into the dining room.

It gave him pause today, snatching a scrap off the breastbone for old times’ sake, before carrying the first ham out. Jay could remember the first time he’d sat down to a meal like this, being awed by the sheer amount and variety of food on the table. Not even in the good years with Willis and Catherine had he ever had a meal like a Wayne Manor Thanksgiving. It was a level of decadence he hadn’t thought existed outside of fiction, much less that he’d ever be able to eat as much as he wanted. Even with months of good meals, he’d been damn near comatose after his first major holiday here as a kid.

And then, for a while, he’d been certain that not only would he never set a welcome foot in the Manor again, but that he didn’t want to. Jay had told himself that he didn’t miss his old life, didn’t miss his late childhood and early adolescence here, that his sense of betrayal was stronger than those good memories. He’d focused on the bad ones instead to fuel his hatred, and let his outrage burn hot enough to keep him warm through the loneliness.

Now? Here he was again, sitting down to dinner with people he’d tried to kill, and they liked him being here. And he even liked being here with them. Basically all the Bats were under one roof, and no one had gotten shot yet. Hell, no one was even drunk . It was … weird. But good.

 

 

Thanksgiving in Smallville had turned out to be the easiest way for Elise and Jason to handle the holiday. They didn’t have to do anything, really – Elise gladly turned her kitchen over to Mr. Kent, and went to relax on the couch. She could hear kids running around outside – some of the younger cousins were playing with the kids of the older cousins. Elise leaned back, sipped spiced cider, and was glad there were plenty of genuine adults around to supervise them.

She didn’t feel quite like enough of an adult, herself, even with the twins growing steadily and her work progressing. Let someone old enough to be her parent take charge. Jason was in the middle of it with them all, being a good host, but Elise had been told in no uncertain terms by Lois Lane-Kent herself to take it easy. As the only other mother of twins, Lois had adamant that Elise needed to relax while she could.

Lois had also told her, quietly, about meeting with Sebast a few days ago. He’d gone away from it with a lot to think about, but everyone was hoping that he and Kala could salvage their friendship. From the way Lois spoke, Elise wondered if she knew the two had been trending toward more than friends – but she wasn’t going to bring that up. It was still too potentially explosive, and Kala was going to arrive shortly anyway.

So she lounged, and listened to half a dozen conversations. Someone had to talk football, with Sam Troupe debating the merits of various teams, getting some chiding from Richard and his own father Ron. Clark came in to support him in rooting for the underdog, but he was a Chiefs fan. Lana, Lucy, and Lucy’s oldest girl Nora were in the kitchen at the moment, keeping an eye on the turkey and setting up side dishes, talking lightly about the flight out and their Black Friday plans. Nora’s husband had gotten sidetracked by the conversation between Lois, Maggie Sawyer, and Tobie Raines, who were planning to set up the trap machine and shoot some clay targets either after dinner, or tomorrow morning.

Outside were Kristin, Sam’s kids, Nora’s daughter, Joanna and Michelle Troupe, all watched over by Cat Grant and her boyfriend Ian. Cat was still keeping a watchful eye on her son Adam, but the younger kids were being reasonably good. The Hubbard grandchildren had wandered over, too. Luckily the weather had been oddly warm this week, and there was no snow on the ground for them to start snowball fights. Last Elise had checked, there was a complicated variation of hide and seek going on, although how anyone could hide with a dozen Hubbard and Kent beagles running around, Elise didn’t know. Almost everyone in the family had dogs, but they hadn’t been subjected to the flight – except Bagel, who was getting up in years and whose attendance had been requested by Kala.

Kala had wanted to see her dog, after an awful week, and though Lois had crabbed about Bagel being their dog for the last ten years at least, they’d brought Bagel along. Elise turned to look at Kala, on the other sofa, and smiled to see Bagel sprawled out with her. Kala had flung an arm around the snoring dog, and the two looked like the definition of after-dinner nap.

Except, dinner hadn’t been served yet, and normally Kala would be in the middle of all of everything, teasing the football fans, threatening to out-shoot her mother, and sneaking into the kitchen to ogle dessert. If not outright steal a cookie. She’d take her turn playing with the younger kids, always willing to make up something new on the spot or join them at board games or video games.

Of course, normally her partner in crime would be right there with her. If they were doing Thanksgiving in Metropolis, Sebast would eat with his parents around midday and then come over to the Kents’ place for dessert. If the tour was on the road and they were dining in Smallville, sometimes he’d come with Kala to Kansas, depending on how things were with his parents. Even if he wasn’t there, Sebast would always call her, or text her pictures of the food at his parents’ house. Everyone in the extended Lane-Kent-White-Troupe family had grown used to hearing about Mikey’s latest shenanigans or what Sebast’s abuelita had said after a glass of rum. They always asked Kala what he was up to lately.

This year, everyone had been forewarned about the band issues and that Kala and Sebast weren’t speaking, so no one had asked. There’d been plenty of discussion before she got there, of course; the idea of Kala and Sebast not being platonic life-mates was disturbing. Elise had found herself biting her tongue; too much of the reasons why were bound up in the other family history. The story they were going with was as close to the truth as they could safely get: that Kala was dating a guy Sebast didn’t approve of.

Of course, that led to a whole other set of problems, namely speculation on who the guy was and why he wasn’t with her at Thanksgiving. On the whole, it was probably best that Kala had come in, hugged everyone, scarfed up half the spinach dip, and then passed out. They’d been able to put off most questions by Lois’ grumpy-sounding complaint that she hadn’t even met the guy yet, so he wasn’t going to be subjected to extended family interrogation when the relationship was only a few months old.

No one in the subset of family who knew the secret wanted to deal with all the baggage of Kala dating a Wayne boy. That would take a ton of explanation, and pique everyone’s interest. Elise knew Kala would hate that scrutiny, and from what she’d heard of Jason Todd, he’d explode from too much extra attention. Unlike the rest of the boys, he had no social media, and none of the news connected to the Waynes ever mentioned him.

Elise sighed quietly. She and Jason had told everyone who asked – and many of them asked – that they’d spoken to Sebast, that he was okay, and that he, Kala, and the label were working on patching things up. But it was still the juiciest news of the year, and half of them were reporters. They couldn’t help being interested.

Her falling asleep like this, clearly exhausted from running the tour by herself after kicking her manager out, had turned them all toward feeling sorry for her. Elise knew Kala would hate that, if she were awake for it. She’d rather be in trouble than be pitied.

As if she were aware of Elise’s thoughts, Kala’s brow furrowed in sleep. She shifted, looking uncomfortable, and jostled Bagel. The little dog picked her head up, looked around blearily, then hopped down to the floor and headed into the kitchen. Kala still frowned, and shook her head, her hand gripping the pillow.

Elise got to her feet, massaging her back briefly, and made her way over to the other couch. A year ago she would’ve sat down on the floor, but right now, she didn’t think she could stand up on her own if she did that. Her center of gravity was too wonky. So she leaned against the arm of the sofa, and ran her hands through Kala’s hair, trying to soothe her without waking her.

Jason came in then, and headed right for Kala. Elise raised an eyebrow at him. “Nightmare,” he said solemnly, and dropped to one knee beside his twin. Touching her shoulder gently, he leaned in close and murmured to her in Kryptonese.

Yeah, that was a risk, but Elise had heard about Kala’s nightmares. Her having one in a house full of people who didn’t know the family secret was a bigger risk. They didn’t need Kala searing a wall with heat vision, or kicking a couch apart. Elise knew the language even if she couldn’t speak it well, and Jason told his sister over and over again that she was safe and well, that she could rest, no harm would find her.

Her eyes opened, and she looked at him, her sleep-rough voice asking in the same language, [Where am I, brother?] That was never not going to freak Elise out just a little. Kala sounded like a native speaker, more so than Jason.

He answered her in English. “My house. It’s Thanksgiving, you zonked out on the sofa. Having nightmares again, Kal?”

She sat up, scrubbing a hand over her face. “I can’t remember. It was … I lost something, I was trying to find it, something else was trying to find me. I don’t remember what , though.” Kala scoffed, and Elise could see her armoring herself against the exhaustion and any unwelcome questions. “I’m disappointed, honestly. Usually my nightmares are a lot more specific, and more operatic.”

Elise bit her lip. She’d been around long enough to know there were two main fears that cropped up in Kala’s subconscious: Zod, and the ocean. Neither of which she deserved to have, and if it had been up to Elise, Luthor would pay for it.

Jason just leaned in and kissed his sister’s forehead. “Well, Mothra, I’m gonna assume that’s just another symptom of being so tired you can’t even go pester our cousins. You always have to take everything a step further – I’m not surprised you’re not just burning the candle at both ends, you’re running a Bic along the thing, too.”

She started to smile, but it crumpled. “Yeah, I … I probably am.”

He glanced up at Elise, who nodded, guessing what he was about to say. “Go up, then. We’ll cover for you. How long’s it been since you got properly sunned up?”

Kala laughed weakly. “There hasn’t been time for that.”

Is it because you’re running back and forth between coasts?” Jason asked.

Hazel eyes narrowed. “No, Jase. I haven’t been to Gotham in almost two weeks. I’ve barely spoken to him. The label’s dropped me into this headfirst. I fired Derek, so they’re making me do all the managerial shit, including hotel reservations, on top of lead singer. Pretty sure I’m going to get pulled into the Principal’s office before the break actually starts. And I’ve got to wrangle the boys, which I’m happy for Robb but if I take my eyes off him for two seconds, he’s either calling Jennifer or running off to meet her. I’m gonna put one of those backpack leashes on him, I swear.”

Have you talked to Sebast at all?” Jason asked.

She looked heartbroken. “No.”

Elise stepped in. “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna go up for an hour. I’ll lock myself in the bedroom; Jase, you tell them I’m having a pregnant crisis and need my sister-in-law to tell me I’m still beautiful when I look like I swallowed a basketball.”

Kala laughed softly. “You sound like Mom.”

I feel like your mom did,” Elise replied, reaching out for Jason’s shoulder. “Only I got lucky, and I have my family to help me.”

Giving her a watery smile, Kala said, “Yeah, if Lizardboy tries to leave you to find a planet, I’ll knock the shit outta him. Elise – I love you. I love you both.”

Yeah, we love you too,” Jason said. “Not like we had a choice. Don’t fall asleep up there, okay? You’ll leave too big of an impact crater.”

Great, now he’s calling me fat,” Kala joked, and levered herself off the couch. She hugged Jason tight, the two of them holding on. Elise watched them, thinking that Jason had known she was having a nightmare even while he was several rooms away. It hurt him so much to see her upset, but they couldn’t put the pieces of Kala’s life back together for her. And she wouldn’t have appreciated them trying, either.

Kala and Elise slipped away upstairs, and after Elise locked the door, Kala slid the window open, checked for observers, pressed a quick kiss to her sister-in-law’s cheek at super-speed, and flew. Elise closed it gently behind her, privately hoping her own twins didn’t get flight. It was awfully useful, but she didn’t relish the idea of trying to keep up with kids who could literally fly away.

 

Chapter Text

Jason shrugged into his coat, grumbling. “You know, they offer international shipping these days.”

“Yeah, and it’s expensive for perishable stuff,” Kala countered. This was her last day before she had to head back to the tour again, just a few more shows before she was free, and she intended to spend it on a time-honored tradition. “Plus we can browse the markets while we’re there. Come on, Dopey, don’t be a wuss.”

He buttoned his coat closed, patting his pocket to make sure his wallet was safely zipped inside. That was at least the third time he’d checked, and she knew it was a delaying tactic. “Yeah, but you can afford it. Rock star and all – the lavish lifestyle is part of your whole aesthetic, isn’t it? Besides, we’re breaking the law, too, not going through Customs.”

She rolled her eyes extravagantly at him. “ Jase . My dear, darling lizard-brother. We break the law every freaking day . We’re vigilantes . Also, if you wanna make the argument that we’re illegally crossing borders, please remember that Dad is very much an illegal alien to start with, and no one checks his visa when he saves the day.”

We’re not saving the day, we’re just shopping,” Jason argued.

And you’re an enormous chickenshit about flying with me,” Kala said, and clucked at him accurately enough that the hens in the yard picked their heads up curiously.

Maybe if you didn’t fly like a fifteen year old on a caffeine bender showing off their new drone, I wouldn’t be rightfully scared of us crashing into a jet,” he shot back.

I have never crashed into anything,” Kala retorted. “Also I know most of the major flight paths by heart now. Seriously, Jase, if you’re really that upset, I can fly slower. But it’ll take hours to get there.”

He looked at her for a long moment, shook his head, and then stepped close. “I love you, adrenaline junkie. Let’s just get it over with, okay? I can’t help it, I don’t like flying even if it’s on a plane.”

I’m surprised you can even handle flea-hopping,” Kala told him, sliding her arms around him. Jason had only gotten bigger and stronger and sturdier with time, until embracing her once-weedy brother was like hugging a refrigerator.

I don’t even like jumping. The falling part really sucks. Sometimes it’s the best or only way to get where I need to be, so I do what I have to.” Jason gripped her shoulders, his face scrunched up in concentration.

Kala checked around with vision and hearing, making sure there wasn’t a car nearby. Most of the time, people didn’t really look up , so as long as she got above the usual sight-line quickly she could take off almost anywhere and not blow her cover. Out here, though, they had to be more careful that no unusual phenomena became attached to the Kent farm. So she scouted out the surroundings, and when she took off, she did it fast .

Subjectively, it didn’t feel too fast to Kala. One moment her boots were on the grass, the next she had only air under her toes, soaring upward at just under the speed of sound. The wide blue sky above didn’t give too many points of reference for her actual speed, and she wasn’t pushing it so hard that the wind resistance became a nuisance. It was just flying, to her, not scary at all.

Jason clutched her shoulders, making an entirely unmanly sound, and Kala was a good sister because she didn’t laugh at him. Even if she dropped him from this height, it wouldn’t actually hurt him. He’d leave an impact crater where he landed, if he couldn’t creak his fall, but even if he just dropped like a stone it wouldn’t hurt him.

But she still didn’t tease him, because pain wasn’t what scared Jason. Being out of control was, and Kala actually liked feeling as though she was skidding along the surface of her ability to control events, pushing herself to reckless extents. It was no fun when her whole life was ordered by external forces – much of the reason she’d hated Derek was his controlling tendencies – but being truly beyond control was addictive. Sometimes when she was up in the ionosphere and completely sunned up, she’d just close her eyes, lie back, and let herself free-fall through miles of empty air, gravity snatching her up greedy as a lover. To fall like that was a delicious delight, and she waited as long as she could before catching herself and pulling up. So far she’d only gotten her boots wet doing it, kicking through a wave as she caught herself mere feet above the ocean, and that had been the best time of all.

She didn’t tell Jason any of that, because he would probably break out in hives and never fly with her again. Once she reached the right altitude, Kala turned toward the sun that shone so much brighter up here, and flew into it. They leveled off, Jason’s arm around her shoulders and hers around his waist, and he relaxed into the flight now that they were bathed in golden light. Jase didn’t get quite as many proper sunbaths, not like Kala who could hover up here whenever she chose.

This was faster than she dared to fly with Jay, the landscape below blurring into a smear of green and brown. Jason studiously didn’t look down, his face turned up to the sun, his eyes closed. Kala did glance at the ground, seeing Florida blip past like a hitchhiking thumb stuck out from the continent, and then they were over the ocean.

She had to steer then, seeing the coastline of Europe ahead, and Kala adjusted course a little. Jason winced, as always, when the land rushing toward them revealed their speed again. At least he didn’t offer commentary.

Kala was careful not to cross any prohibited airspace, and she set them down just off Boulevard Haussman. It wouldn’t be Christmas shopping without a trip through the grands magasins; all of the huge Belle Epoque department stores were beautifully decorated for the season. Now that they were firmly on the ground, Jason caught her hand and tugged her along, heading for the gourmet food section in Printemps. Kala laughed, and let him pull her.

Jason shopped like a man on a mission. Kala liked to browse, wandering into any store that caught her eye. He had certain specific things he wanted, which were only available in certain stores, and he made a plan for hitting all his favorite places. This day was mostly about the two of them getting to hang out, though, so she didn’t mind keeping to his pace. After all, he did relax a little at the Galerie Vivienne, browsing through antique books while Kala eyed the Gaultier windows.

Eventually they broke for lunch at a little cafe, just a quiet place that only they and the locals knew, but Kala sighed contentedly at finally being able to sit down and watch the city flow around her. If she hadn’t had super-stamina and invulnerability, her feet would’ve been sore by now.

Jason had polished off his salad and sandwich, and was eyeing the dessert menu. Kala lingered more over hers, thinking about taking Jay to Paris. He’d probably already been, globe-trotter that he was, and she wondered if he had a favorite cafe. Some small family-run place like this, maybe. She tried to imagine Jay doing the tourist thing, wandering through museums, climbing the Eiffel Tower.

Whatcha thinkin’?” Jason asked disingenuously, and Kala laughed. At herself, and at the shrewd look in his eyes.

Mostly just wondering if I should split dessert with you or get my own,” she replied lightly. Another quiet chuckle at her own romanticism; she was seriously thinking about visiting Paris with her boyfriend. Oh, she had it bad.

Jase grinned. “Get your own. I’m not sharing.”

Rude,” she laughed, and caught the waiter’s eye.

Once they’d both ordered, Jason leaned forward, looking at her. “So, how’re things with Todd?”

She wrinkled her nose immediately. “You sound like Aunt Maggie. Don’t call him by his last name, please.”

Well, I don’t like calling him by my own name,” her brother replied.

Kala sighed, rubbing her temple. “Okay, you’re Jason, or Jase. Or Iguanaman. He’s Jay, or Hood. If I can keep it straight, you can too.”

One, I really hope you can remember the right names, because if not, eww,” Jason replied, looking pained. “Two, I was kinda happier when you weren’t keeping it straight. Speaking of Marlene, heard anything from the label about the manager situation?”

Kala stuck her tongue out at him. “Hey, I don’t pick on your bromance with Tim. And no, the label hasn’t said anything. Yet. They’re leaving me to pick up the pieces, but I know a drama-bomb is coming. Also even if I do by some miracle get Marlene back, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna break up with Jay. Who knows, she might actually be in a relationship.”

It was Jason’s turn to sigh. “She’s nice. I hope whatever she’s doing, she’s happy. And I hope you’re happy, too, which is why I asked about Jay.”

Blinking at him, she decided to take him at his word. “Okay. We’re both busy right now, so I haven’t heard much more than occasional text. He was at the Manor for Thanksgiving, though, I know that much. Alfred wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Alfred is awesome,” Jason said fondly. He took a sip of lemonade, and then asked, “So is Jay coming to Christmas with us?”

She found herself choking on a last bite of her sandwich, coughing and wheezing alarmingly until she got it down. “ Shit, Jase! Don’t do that!”

It’s a reasonable question!” he said, defensive, even while he pushed his half-full drink toward her. Her own was empty, so she took a swig to soothe her throat, and he let her swallow before continuing. “C’mon, Kala, you’ve been dating the guy since August. I figured you’d want to bring him to stuff. And since we’re doing in Smallville, I figured I’d go ahead and invite him to Christmas dinner.”

Kala rolled her eyes, feeling squeezed in by the pressure of family expectations. “Okay, first, we haven’t been dating since August. We’ve been sleeping together since August. The dates started … late September? Early October? I don’t even know. We didn’t put a name to it for a while. We’re not you and Elise.”

He frowned a little, thoughtful. “Even if we’re talking October, Kala, that’s two months. I know I jumped the gun like, a lot, but two months is meet the family time.”

She groaned. “For normal people, maybe, which neither of us are. And the Bats aren’t like us, Jase!”

Look, Kala, how do you really feel about this guy?” Jason asked, his brow still furrowed. “Because if you don’t want him around your family…”

Scowling back, Kala told him, “It’s not that! Look, it’s weird because we already know each other’s parents. And I’m not trying to push things here, all right? Most of the reason why he and Donna split up was because things got too domestic. She wanted something that he doesn’t even know how to do. The guy was practically a feral child, and then a rich man’s ward. He hasn’t got the first clue about normal middle-class Midwestern family stuff. Not like the Waynes are within shouting distance of normal.”

And we are?” Jason said, raising a very Lois-like eyebrow.

We try to be,” Kala replied. “Mom and Dad did their best to give us a normal childhood. We went to public school, we watched cartoons, we got allowances, we did chores. He went from stealing tires to survive at thirteen, to putting on a mask at fourteen. Alfred loves them all as much as he possibly can, but none of them are used to being … warm and open, like us. Dick tries, he’s the best at it, but no one else in that house is comfortable with it. And Jay? God, Jay would explode into a thousand bats and flap off into the night if Daddy Richard tried to get him into an ugly Christmas sweater for photos.”

That mental image did make Jason chuckle. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I can’t imagine Tim at one of our Christmases, either. But Kala … you know they’re gonna ask. We had to play divert-the-questions at Thanksgiving already, and half our family is reporters . Sooner or later, they’re gonna want details.”

Kala leaned her head into her hands, letting her breath out slowly. “Sooner or later I may decide to share some details. But … it’s still too new . For both of us. I’ve never done this before, Jase. Not with another cape. And shit, his dating history is … massively fucked. He’s never done this before either.”

He reached across to take her hands. “Look, Kal, you’re my sister. I love you. If you’re happy, I’ll dodge questions for as long as you want.”

I am happy,” she admitted with a lopsided smile. The only thing that would make her happier would be having Sebast back in the band, back in her life, but there was no way to do that without a whole host of other complications.

Good,” Jason said. “Maybe between now and Christmas we can work out some kind of cover story.”

She winced a little, giving him a hesitant smile. “We’ll have to. Jase … Alfred invited me to Wayne Manor for Christmas. Well, after Christmas, anyway. Any time Christmas week, really.”

He raised a dark eyebrow at her, but instead of telling her off, Jason just shook his head with a very Jason smile, sunny and wry at the same time. “At least they do one thing like normal people. And he gets to bring his girlfriend for the holidays.”

No, Alfred does something like normal people,” Kala pointed out. “I still don’t know how Jay feels about it.”

If he’s not thrilled to have you there, I’ll kick his ass for you,” Jason said, too eagerly, and Kala mimed throwing her napkin at him.

At least they were saved further conversation by the waiter arriving with dessert.

 

 

Harley counted bills just for the fun of it, really; she trusted Selina not to stiff them. It was nice just to hold a thousand dollars in her hand, test the weight of the bills, then break the band and count through them leisurely. One hundred hundred-dollar bills. And she had two hundred and eighty stacks like this, almost three hundred grand, all hers. Which meant Selina had paid Oswald mostly out of her own share, most likely, but hey, she could afford to be generous. She was dating that himbo billionaire Bruce Wayne, a fact that amused Harley. She wondered if the guy knew about Batman, or Holly Robinson, or any of Selina’s other dalliances. Probably not, but then, Harley didn’t judge other people’s romantic issues.

She’d handled more money at various times, back in the day – she’d once slipped seven million dollars worth of loose diamonds into her cleavage for safekeeping – but this was all hers, and hers alone. Every other time she’d had her hands on enough cash or valuables to make her feel lightheaded, it belonged to someone else. Usually Joker.

Her mouth drew down into a scowl at the mere thought of his name, rage twisting her chest and blanking her vision out with red. Some small part of her mind – the part that used to wear glasses just to look older and wiser and more clinical , what a sap – noted the reaction, murmured about flashbacks and delayed responses, and contemplated therapeutic options.

Most of her believed the best therapy would be beating Joker’s laughing face in. And not stopping, this time, just really going to town on him, swinging until her arms were tired and his entire face was red pulp. A baseball bat or a mallet would make it impossible to get into the hospital, but an IV pole could come in handy. It’d take more hits to do the kind of damage she wanted, with less mass, but she was nothing if not determined.

And Harley sighed, dropping her head into the pile of banded bills on her bed, because no one would let her do what she really wanted. Even if she did manage to break into the hospital, someone would call the cops or a Bat before she was finished obliterating Joker. She might get to kill him, but she wouldn’t get to destroy him. The only way she’d ever manage that would be to get him alone someplace where she could really take her time. Torture wasn’t her thing, she’d prefer to kill him quickly, but there was a certain satisfaction in lingering over methods of dismemberment and dissolution. Maybe just a really good wood-chipper…

Violent revenge is rarely as cathartic as we expect it to be, Dr. Quinzel murmured in her head.

Shut up, Doc,” Harley whispered aloud.

How was she supposed to deal with this, anyway? A couple weeks of freedom – real freedom, not just a temporary reprieve from the abuse, time spent with someone who actually did like her company, who wanted her here, and who was damn near ecstatic at the thought of her never leaving again – was finally showing her just how wrong her relationship with Joker had been. At least once a day, she said something or did something or just laughed a little too loud, and caught herself thinking, Uh-oh, Pam hates it when I do that, here we go, and Pam just … didn’t. One of the most feared villains in Gotham, arguably the most powerful of all the rogues, and her typical expression of annoyance was to roll her eyes and tug Harley close for a kiss. Usually while murmuring, “ Please stop that,” but still. It was kind of a head trip when Harley kept expecting a fist in the gut or the kind of scathing diatribe that would bring tears to her eyes. Or it would have, if she didn’t already know crying would just get her beaten anyway.

On one level, Harley knew Pam was being very careful. This was exactly what she’d wanted, for Harley to leave Joker and stay with her, so she was doing that honeymoon thing where everything one’s partner did was cute, at worst. And she wouldn’t let herself express any anger she was feeling, anyway, knowing how vulnerable Harley was to it.

It really was a special kind of hell, being able to psychoanalyze herself and everyone around her.

On another level, she was waiting for the inevitable, for things to go bad, for Pam to turn on her, and she couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she deserved it. Look how she’d treated Pam for years, using her and casting her aside over and over again. She’d come to Pam when she was broken, get patched up and nursed back to health and oh yeah, righteously laid, then run back to Joker again. It was horrible, and Pam would’ve been justified in cutting Harley off at any time. Surely she was justified in demanding a higher standard from her now, in expecting more, and enforcing it however she chose. Surely Harley deserved a little payback for making her suffer.

The thing was … Pam didn’t see it that way. Harley hadn’t missed the fact that every plant in their hideout was currently flowering, never mind that it was December. Pam tried to be aloof, and she’d never been the most demonstrative person, but she made it very hard for Harley to doubt that she was wanted and loved and adored. She woke up every morning in Pam’s arms, half a dozen times a day Pam would drop a kiss on her shoulder or just smile at her so indulgently that Harley’s heart skipped a beat, and she damn sure didn’t have to beg for Pam’s attention in the bedroom, either. Or the shower, or the living room, or on the kitchen counter, as a matter of fact, even if that last had been a little awkward when Selina showed up to bring them their share of the cash.

She was also cynical enough to know that the sheer amount of endorphins floating around in her system at any given time probably made her clinically high. Great sex was like that sometimes. The thing was, if Pam wanted her in a serotonin and dopamine haze, she didn’t have to do it the old-fashioned way. One kiss could knock Harley off her feet, if Pam wanted; she was only immune to toxins, after all. Hell, Pam could do anything she wanted to Harley’s mental state at any time. Any meal or drink or even a simple touch could’ve been laced with psychoactive substances. The thing that continually surprised Harley was how it just never happened . That wasn’t an advantage most people would pass up. Hell, even Selina cut her a look like she’d cheerfully dope Harley’s drink just to tone down her more frenetic moods. Pam never did anything like that, unless Harley asked her to.

There were still some things they weren’t talking about, and what to do next was the biggest one. Pam wanted out of Gotham; Harley was fine with that, really, but she wanted to kill Joker first. If she left while he was alive, it felt like running away, and she never wanted to run again.

Realistically, she knew there was a lot of work in her future, the kind of work she’d always encouraged other people to do, without ever realizing how damn hard it was. There were coping mechanisms to unlearn, internalized negativity to dismantle, self-hatred and blame to root out. Harley just didn’t feel like she could get started on any of that without putting Joker in the ground first.

A cold nose pressed her arm, and she rolled onto her side, reaching out to scratch Bud’s head. A couple weeks of healing were doing wonders for him, too. The surgical drains were out, and his fur was growing back. He moved more freely now … but he was more cautious than he had been. For the time being, Lou was the top dog. Harley rubbed his big round ears, and murmured, “Besides, I owe him for you, don’t I, Buddy-boy? Yeah, Mama’s gotta show that bad man what happens to someone who hurts her little baby, yes she does. Mama’s gonna teach him a lesson.”

Bud just whined softly, leaning into her hand. “Maybe I’ll feed him to you,” Harley whispered. “Would you like that, Bud? Would you like to munch the hand that shot you? I don’t know, baby, maybe he’s so mean he’d make you sick. Maybe Mama will just have to settle for chopping him up into itty-bitty pieces. There’s plenty of things in the bay that can eat ‘im and not get sick.”

Pam came to the door then, and Harley winced a little. Pam didn’t exactly encourage her revenge fantasies; she didn’t discourage them, either, and probably had some of her own. Harley imagined Joker strangled by thousands of thorny vines, scraping his skin right off, caustic sap leaking into his bloodstream. She imagined that laugh of his choking on foliage, his eyes pierced by long thorns, his body torn apart by the same strength that tree roots used to shatter stone and concrete, his blood watering a garden of retribution. Oh yeah, she probably had epic plans, and it wouldn’t surprise Harley to learn that Pam was in favor of torture.

But that didn’t mean Pam wanted to talk about it. The more macabre her own personal feelings on the subject, the less she wanted to encourage Harley toward revenge. Maybe in her mind, this was the worst thing she could do to Joker – steal his Harley, and keep her , forcing him to live with the knowledge that Harley didn’t need him.

Looked at that way, maybe running off to somewhere tropical was a good idea.

But for now, Pam had a serious look in her eyes, and Harley offered her a tremulous smile. Pam sighed, walking in, and nudged Bud gently aside to sit down beside Harley. She just rubbed Harley’s back, and she looked worried.

Harley bit her lip. “I wasn’t really serious,” she said. “I mean, about the whole feedin’ him to the boys thing. I just get so mad about what he did to Bud…”

You have a right to be angry,” Pam murmured, her hand tracing slow, gentle circles over the tense muscles along Harley’s spine. “I wouldn’t blame you for that. Never.”

Letting out a sigh, Harley asked, “Then … what is it?”

Pam bent down and kissed her temple, nuzzling against her hair for a moment that seemed to stretch far too long. “Have you looked at your phone in the last ten minutes?” she asked softly.

No,” Harley said, glancing at it where it lay on the bedside table, hooked up to her charger. “Why?”

The hand rubbing her back slowed, and finally stopped, Pam wrapping an arm around Harley’s waist. When she spoke, her voice was soft and wary, close by Harley’s ear. “I have someone in the hospital. Joker just broke out.”

 

 

Jay and Kala were on patrol, just another ordinary night in the Rotten Apple, and they chased a couple of Dent’s guys into a warehouse. The hair on the back of Jay’s neck bristled, remembering Black Mask and the close call they’d had with his boys. He tightened down on that, though, focusing on the men fleeing from him.

Kala could’ve snatched them up in a heartbeat, but she was hanging back for him, pacing herself so he didn’t get left in the dust. The way he had the last few times she’d broken out the full range of her powers. He grinned beneath his helmet at finally getting her to be careful…

but there was no hiding what she was, and what she could do. And no point in having a meta in Gotham if he didn’t let her use everything he’d taught her. “Go get ‘em, Blur, I’ll catch up,” he laughed.

She laughed, too, and kicked in the speed just as the two men disappeared through a big rolling door.

Jay caught up seconds later, throwing himself through the door recklessly. Kala was there ahead of him, she’d handle any overt threat first, the only thing now was making sure he actually got a piece of the action. They must have been running uphill, because the warehouse opened into a basement, a damp concrete floor beneath his feet and pipes running along the ceiling overhead. The lighting was dim, and Jay automatically swung to his left, trying to put a wall at his back and assess potential threats.

Always the left. Most people turned toward their dominant hand when choosing a random direction, and most people were right-handed. So any opponent that knew how that about handedness and how un-random most choices were would expect him to be going right. Left gave him slightly better odds.

Jay heard laughter, in the dark, and all his senses went to high alert. Joker . Rage bloomed in Jay’s chest; for all he’d hesitated, not wanting to kill without being certain of his own motives, he knew that faced with the clown himself he’d pull the trigger without a second’s hesitation. And he had Kala here, she’d promised she wouldn’t let him face Joker alone. God, how good it felt to know he had someone on his side , no questions asked, as he faced off against his nightmare.

Show yourself, you fucking freak,” Jay snarled, gun drawn.

Instead, he heard a pained whimper from the dark, and an icy fist clutched his guts. Where was Kala?!

I’d rather show you something else, little dead bird,” Joker crooned from somewhere.

The light was too dim, Jay tried to switch to night vision, but his helmet couldn’t compensate. He threw it off in a fury, heart hammering, and roared, “Blur! Fall back!”

No answer, except a choked-off furious sound. Jay ran forward, not caring if he got himself shot. He heard another noise, a female voice in a wordless snarl of pain and rage, and he knew . His life was worthless if he didn’t stop this.

Jay skidded into a small room, poorly lit by a dull green glow. To his horror, he saw the walls lined with green crystals, pulsing with that evil light.

Hello, Robin,” Joker murmured, and Jay swung around. Somehow Joker had gotten behind him … and he was holding Kala up by her throat.

By a crowbar pressed tight to her windpipe, cutting off her air, Joker yanking it back to keep Kala crushed against his chest. Her eyes were already wide and bloodshot, and she was still struggling, but just barely. If not for the kryptonite she could’ve wrapped that fucking crowbar around his neck.

Kala!” Jay screamed, and the cold cloak of battle-readiness hadn’t dropped over him. All he felt was terror. He couldn’t lose her, not like this, he couldn’t watch the spirit in her eyes die. Not like this. She couldn’t die in the dark at the hands of a madman, not when she was light and life and joy to him.

Bringing his gun up, he aimed squarely at Joker’s eye, and pulled the trigger. Fuck the moralizing, fuck the doubt, fuck the repercussions, fuck all of it, he’d kill the sonofabitch to save Kala. He had plenty of time, once that bullet blew Joker’s diseased brains out he could drag Kala out of her, get her into the light, she could heal damn near anything…

With inhuman speed, Joker yanked Kala up, into the firing line, and…

Jay screamed .

The bullet took her in the forehead. Green kryptonite everywhere, her invulnerability was gone, and that face he loved so much was suddenly just a mask, all the expression gone from it. Her features went slack, her eyes rolled up, and blood began to spill thickly from the bullet hole. And from her mouth and nose, blood like a waterfall, the mind that fascinated him turned to bloody mush by the impact of his bullet.

Whoops! Think you missed there, dead bird!” Joker cackled, roaring with laughter. “Aw, too bad, so sad, guess you won’t mind so much when I put you down!”

He dropped her, just let her fall, and Jay scrambled to catch her, his mind short-circuiting. He couldn’t stand to hear the sound of her body hitting the concrete floor. It couldn’t be, this couldn’t happen , he couldn’t let this happen. Kala couldn’t die, not on his watch, not at the hands of the Joker, not from Jay’s own bullet .

Jay just barely managed to catch her, Kala ragdoll-boneless in his hands, and the phrase dead weight had never been more horribly accurate. He couldn’t even scream, his throat locked up, and when he saw Joker raise the crowbar again, Jay didn’t even think to fight. He just curled himself over her body and closed his eyes…

The sound of shattering glass woke him. Jay sat bolt upright in bed, soaked in sweat, aware of a terrible low groaning noise in his throat. All he could see was Kala’s bloodied face … and then suddenly she was right there , absurdly dressed in pajamas with a trail of glass fragments sparkling like diamonds behind her all the way to the window. Her hands were on his shoulders, her voice was asking if he was okay, her eyes were frightened but alive , thank fucking God she was alive , and he grabbed her like a drowning man seizing a life preserver. The way he yanked her close and clutched her tight would’ve bruised any mere human. Jay buried his face in her hair, took a deep breath of that candied-violet smell, and shuddered so hard he thought he’d rattle right out of his skin.

Kala ended up in his lap, her hands moving over his back, and he heard her speaking as if from a long distance away, saying everything was okay, it was just a nightmare, she was here and he was safe. She didn’t know . He wasn’t the one who needed protecting, she was. And his own miscalculation had killed her in the nightmare.

It was his bullet that killed her. Joker’s handiwork, but his doing .

Jay took a deep gulping breath of air, but his lungs still ached. He tried again, and again, gasping desperately, but nothing eased the crushing weight on his chest. Kala tried to pull back and he clutched her even closer with a strangled wordless cry, still shaking uncontrollably. The pain in his chest only increased, and that would’ve made him laugh in any other circumstances, here he was dying of a fucking heart attack because of a stupid goddamn nightmare…

Kala managed to pull herself away just enough to look him in the eye, and catch his chin, holding him steady. “Look at me, Jay. Just at me. You’re not having a heart attack. This is a panic attack. You’re going to be okay, just stay with me.”

He whined, his skin feeling too tight, his lungs burning. This wasn’t just panic, he was dying , he’d died before and it hadn’t bothered him this much even then.

She cupped his jaw in that delicate hand that was stronger than his whole body, and told him in a low soothing voice, “I can hear your heart, Jay, it’s fine . Fast, but fine. You’re not dying, it just feels like you are. You have to breathe slower, you’re hyperventilating.”

A fragment of knowledge flicked across his mind – hyperventilating could make a person feel like they were suffocating. But breathing slow was impossible when his whole body screamed for oxygen, when no matter how his lungs tore at the air it felt like nothing was getting in.

Kala pried one of his hands off her back and put it over her heart. “Jay, slow down. Breathe with me. In … hold it … and out.” He could feel her chest rising, holding, falling. He could feel her heart, beating fast but not pounding out of her body like his own.

He tried to hold his breath, and it was shaky and weak and he let it out with a plosive rush, snatching at the air again. Kala kept murmuring to him to slow down, her voice almost hypnotic, and little by little he felt like he was getting some oxygen. Just enough to let him breathe somewhat normally, but his chest still ached and his skin was still trying to crawl off his body and he still wanted to scream and run and hang onto her and never let go, all at once.

It’s okay, Jaybird, you’re going to be okay, you’ll stop feeling like this soon,” Kala murmured reassuringly. “Panic attacks always end. I’ve been there, I know it hurts, but you’re going to be okay. Just breathe, Jay, slow and easy.”

Jesus fuck I’m gonna die,” he managed to whimper.

She looked at him, her hazel eyes so serious, and rubbed her thumb softly against his lips. “You’d better not. I won’t let you.”

He managed a half-crazed laugh at that, but it was helping. She was helping. The wild fear eating him up inside began to loosen. “Fuck, Kala , I … I dreamed…”

It’s not real. It’s just a dream. It can’t hurt you,” she told him. “You’re here, you’re safe, I’m right here with you. I won’t let anything happen. I won’t let anyone hurt you. God help anyone who tries to.”

Jay groaned, still shivering like he had the world’s worst fever. His teeth were even chattering. Kala settled herself further into his embrace, and the warmth of her in his arms was helping. “Listen, my therapist taught me something to ground myself when I used to have panic attacks,” Kala murmured. “I want you to try it, too, okay? It might help. Will you try this?”

He couldn’t quite speak, but Jay managed to nod. Every breath was still shaky, but his chest was finally starting to loosen up. Maybe it wasn’t a heart attack after all.

Kala took a deep breath and kissed his brow lightly. “It’s a mindfulness thing, a countdown. I want you to find five things you can see, right now. Can you do that, Jay?”

I see your face with a bullet hole in it, he thought, and whined again, tightening his arms around her.

No, Jay, open your eyes. Five real things, right here in this room. Look around, this is what’s real, this is what’s here. Five things.” She patiently stroked his cheek until he did open his eyes, looking at her first.

Her, real and alive and right here. No blood, no awful blank eyes, not a scratch on her. As a matter of fact the only thing on her… “Batman pajama pants. And my fuckin’ shirt,” he managed to gasp out.

Kala smiled like he’d just aced a calculus test, and for some bizarre reason her eyes teared up a little. “That’s my Jay. Yeah, I sleep in your shirt when I can’t sleep in your arms. Three more things?”

His eyes darted around the room. “Broken glass,” he muttered.

Sorry about the window. It’s bullet-proof but not Super-proof,” Kala murmured. “I’ll call someone to fix it later. Two more?”

Scotch,” he mumbled, seeing the bottle atop his dresser. It had migrated over there at some point, instead of being on his night stand, and he really wished it was closer. Glancing at the nightstand, he saw his phone blinking, and named it as the fifth thing.

Good, Jay. Now four different sounds.” Kala moved her hands to his shoulders, rubbing slow, soothing circles into the tense muscles.

Your voice,” he said, feeling his heartbeat slow down at last. “My breathing.”

That’s two. What else, Jay? Listen, focus,” Kala told him.

There wasn’t much to hear, the general rumble of city life outside wasn’t something he could pinpoint. A rattle from the kitchen area spooked him for half a second, until he identified it and seized it as a sound to count. “Ice maker!”

Good. One more,” Kala said.

For a moment he was stumped, then Jay barked a shaky laugh. “Fuck. My voice.”

Okay. You’re doing good, Jay. Now, tell me three things you can touch.”

She was still in his lap, and his hands spread out across her back. “You,” Jay mumbled, relief in his voice.

Two more,” Kala reminded him, smiling.

He reached out with one hand, grabbed indiscriminately, and said, “Pillow.” Then tossed it aside and put his hand on the hilt of the kris underneath. “Knife.” The ornate handle was a soothing weight in his hand. The gun would’ve been better, but he would’ve had to look away from Kala to grab it.

That’s good, Jay,” Kala replied. “All right, two things you can smell.”

Your perfume,” was the easy answer, and he shoved his face into her throat to sniff it deeply. Candied violets, who would’ve fucking guessed that would become his favorite smell. Only Kala could pull something that sweet off, on anyone else it’d seem like a little kid scent, but something about her made it warm and comforting and deeply her, so nothing else even entered his mind when he smelled it.

She shifted her hands, carding them through his hair, and said quietly, “Good. One more thing?”

Jay sniffed, but all he got was her. He had to sit back a little, not quite noticing how his heart and lungs were calming down from their frantic pace as he focused on her request. Another sniff, and he frowned. “Sweat. Fear-sweat. Ugh.”

We’ll get a shower in a minute,” Kala promised. “Last thing, Jay, something you can taste.”

He swallowed, but his mouth felt dry. There was nothing there, not even the musty fuzz of impending hangover. For once he hadn’t even had a shot last night – that was becoming more and more common of late.

So to taste something, he cupped the back of her neck and leaned in, kissing Kala, swiping his tongue over her lips. It was there, but faint. “Vanilla lip gloss,” he said, with the ghost of a laugh.

Kala leaned her forehead against him. “Yeah, I gotta give you that one. Good, Jay. How do you feel now?”

Better,” he replied, surprised that it was true. “Like I ran five miles being chased by fuckin’ wolves or some shit. Also, little bit like I’m still gonna explode.”

It’ll feel like that for a little while,” Kala murmured. “Then you’re just gonna be tired. Just hollowed out, like you can’t feel anything. Don’t worry about it, everything resets back to normal eventually. Your body just dumped a month’s worth of fight or flight chemicals into your blood all at once, that’s all.”

Oh, well, fucking thank my body for that, I really needed that shit tonight,” Jay said harshly. “Fucking bullshit.”

She sighed, and kissed his cheek. “I’m here. I’ll stay here until you’re okay again.”

Something finally occurred to him, and he looked at the shattered glass – the December air blowing cold into the room – and asked, “How did you get here? How did you know?”

Kala wrapped her arms around him. “Jay, I don’t wanna talk about that now. Can you stand? Do you want a shower?”

Even in the midst of a panic attack, he was still too well-trained to miss that evasion. Jay took hold of her shoulders and stared at her intently. “No, tell me now. How did you know to come here?”

Do you really want me to answer that? Even if it sets off another panic attack?” she asked.

Fuck it, two for the price of one,” Jay said. “Tell me.”

Kala drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and cupped his face. “Your phone’s blinking. You probably got a message, too. You were just too deeply asleep to hear it. Jay … Babs called me.”

He knew, from the moment she hinted it might cause another panic attack he knew . “Joker’s out,” he said in a raspy voice.

Yeah. You should probably call Babs, let her know you got the message,” Kala said. “Let her know I’m here, too, I didn’t respond to her. Once I saw her text and heard your heart rate, I just came as fast as I could.”

Jay could only blink. “You can hear my heart from Kansas?”

I can hear your heart from California,” she corrected. “Vacation’s over, I’m back at work for two weeks. Thank God the hotel had windows I could open or I’d have an expensive bill to pay there, too.”

Jay just stared. This woman could hear his heartbeat from the other side of the continent. And fly here in a handful of minutes to talk him down from a fucking panic attack. Jesus fuck on a motorcycle, Super really was the right name for them, they exceeded every possible expectation without even trying. He clutched her tight to him again, pressing his face against her neck, and let out a groan. The words were right there, God I love you so fucking much , but he couldn’t say them, not like this. He let his arms around her and the unashamed tears leaking from his eyes say it instead.

Kala stroked his hair, curling herself around him. “We’ve got to call Babs and let her know. And get clearance for the Roost. You can’t stay here tonight with the window broken, it’s too damn cold.”

Can’t leave it open,” he grumbled.

You live on the thirty-fourth floor,” Kala pointed out. “And you’ve still got tripwires and alarms. It’ll be fine for one night. Now let me use your phone to call Babs. I left mine in California.”

Jay sighed against her skin, and decided to let everything else take care of itself for a night. He could trust Kala. “Go ‘head,” he muttered, already feeling tired. “Gotta reset the ‘larms.”

She ruffled his hair and kissed the top of his head. “It’s gonna be okay, Jaybird. I promise.” But he tuned it all out, closing his eyes to listen to the steady, fearless beat of her heart, not even paying attention to conversation with Babs. All the safety he needed was right here.

Chapter Text

One dead cop, two dead security guards, and a catatonic nurse left in his wake, Joker sauntered into his latest hideout. Armed, of course; he’d looted every kill, and was ready for whatever reception he might get. The boys might be glad to see him, or they might have decided to grow half a brain cell and try running things on their own.

The beauty of it was, whichever option turned out to be true didn’t matter, because his men didn’t matter. They were all just bit players on the grand stage of life, and no matter how many he lost or killed, there were always more to take the place of the fallen. Joker only kept a handful of really important help, the kind he’d actually hesitate to throw in front of an oncoming car. Even those were expendable under the right circumstances.

He banged the door open on his way in, calling out, “Honey, I’m home!” in his most cheerful voice. Never mind that his right side was still a little slower and weaker than his left, or that his gait still dragged slightly. He was on the road to recovery, he’d be fine, especially with more opportunity for physical therapy out in the real world again. Rapid healing was part of the deal, as was perfect recovery.

Honestly, he would’ve guessed that most of his guys had fled. So it was slightly a surprise to hear chairs scraping back, and hurried footsteps coming his way. Joker didn’t rush to meet them, making a show of checking his reflection in a cracked mirror hung up in the foyer.

That gave the men time to decide on their approach. They hesitated in the hall, shuffling and muttering, and Joker sighed as he raked his hair back into something like order. He watched their reflections without appearing to notice them, and when none made a move, he turned sharply toward them. “Hello, boys!” Joker called out, loud enough to make them flinch. “Did you miss me?”

“No,” one man said, and Joker wished he could remember the guy’s name. Or anything about him, anything that would make this spark of defiance feel personal or meaningful. Because the man was about to die, and he might as well have some kind of victory before he shuffled out of existence. Too bad, the guy was just another walk-on role, and he tried to square up now with false bravado. “You’re done, Joker. You’ve been slipping since the Red Hood showed back up, and now you let Harley kick your ass? You should’ve stayed in the hospital.”

Joker sighed, tilting his head back, and spoke as if to the ceiling. “Philistines . Is there no one left who appreciates a three-act structure? The inevitable reduction in circumstances before the protagonist makes his triumph return? Even something so basic as dramatic timing?” He took an easy step forward, looking right at the fool who challenged him, and smiled as only he could. “What would be the fun if I could win every round? Harley gets her moment to shine … and she pays for it. That’s how this story goes.”

The guy didn’t take the hint. Which was more satisfying, honestly. He doubled down, stepping forward. “You make everyone think you’re some kind of … next-level crazy genius, like you’ve blasted past all of society’s rules into some kind of clarity only madmen see. You’re just another nut. And getting trashed by Harley Quinn? Just proves you never had it in the first place, Joker. You just got lucky.”

Joker shook his head slowly, tsk ing in disappointment. “No, no, you don’t understand. Harley can’t make a move against me. I own her. I made her. She cannot exist separate from my fundamental will. Did not God make the angels, and make Lucifer rebellious in the first place? Even that great iconoclast serves his place in his maker’s plan.”

As usual, the reference went over their heads. Joker didn’t mind, really. Religious fervor was out of fashion these days. It was still a really amusing analogy. Instead of considering it, the guy just pulled a gun, aiming it straight at Joker. “You’re delusional. It’s time you retired. Permanently.”

He’d seen this all before. The desperate screwed-together courage, the fierce revolt, the threat. Joker knew what none of them did: threats were theater. If you really meant to kill someone, it was better to just do it.

So he stepped closer, smiling, his eyes alight. “Go on, do it,” Joker said, his voice dropping into a chant. “Do it, do it, do it , just pull the trigger, come on and do it…”

The utter lack of fear always gave them pause. Like they still expected him to abide by the conventional wisdom that a gun to one’s forehead should be scary. Why should it be? When he stepped into it, when he laughed with a weapon aimed right between his eyes, he became the most frightening thing in the room. Not the gun, or the coward pointing it.

The guy’s mouth tightened to a firm, flat line, and he pulled the trigger.

Oh, so not a coward after all. Good to know.

The dry little click of the firing pin hitting the cartridge, and nothing else happening, made all of them look dumbly at the gun. Joker, however, whooped with delight.

He snatched the gun, still laughing so hard it hurt his ribs. “That was fun! Hey, you wanna see a good trick?”

Most of them had guns. They were all just too stunned by this turn of events to reach for them. Joker had all the time in the world to pop the magazine, rack the slide, and catch the ejected un-fired round in midair. Then while they all watched as blank-eyed as feedlot cattle, he put the same round back in the magazine, slapped it home, and racked the slide again to cock the gun. On the same bullet that had just misfired.

Some of them probably saw this coming. Joker grabbed the guy who’d tried to shoot him by the shirt, grinned gleefully, and asked, “Do you feel lucky?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, pressing the muzzle of the pistol right between the guy’s eyes and pulling the trigger.

The gunshot echoed in the small foyer, making everyone’s ears ring, and men standing behind the unfortunate would-be shooter got painted with blood and brains. Joker let the body fall, and glared at all of them, his smile so broad it felt like the corners of his mouth might meet behind his head. “Who’s next?”

As one creature, the men stepped back. This was not merely fear, Joker knew.

It was awe.

 

 

Kala had gotten Jay back to the Manor and settled in his bed there with a minimum of fuss. Everyone was on high alert due to Joker’s breakout, and it seemed like they all assumed she was bringing Jay over both to keep an eye on him, and to consolidate everyone under one roof. No one needed to know that he’d had a nightmare and a panic attack.

Just like her own panic attacks, Jay was exhausted afterward, and he’d yawned through a shower even with Kala washing his hair for him. At first he’d been reluctant to go back to bed; whatever nightmare he’d woken from had to be a terrible one. Kala could only convince him to lay down by curling herself around him. Jay fell asleep at last with his head pressed against her chest, his arms around her waist, and his legs tangled with hers.

Somewhere back in the darkest recesses of her mind, the Empress wondered how best to find Joker. Jay would eventually forgive her for stealing ‘his’ kill; it needed to be done.

The rest of her was chilled by those thoughts. And yet, she couldn’t disagree with them. Watching Jay – brave, reckless, impossible Jay, who’d been broken and who stitched himself back together with a defiant grin – watching him fall apart in a panic attack left a coal of rage burning in her chest. If she could catch Joker alone somewhere without any witnesses or cameras…

She’d fallen asleep, too. Eventually. Kala held him tight all night long.

The morning sunrise didn’t wake her, but she’d been asleep when Babs called and had skipped three hours ahead, so her body clock was completely messed up. At least there was an old alarm clock on the shelf in Jay’s room, that she’d been able to set to wake her. The tour was rolling out today, and it was her responsibility to get everyone on the bus in time.

The brisk ringing woke Jay too, and he swatted at the clock grumpily. “Hush, Jay, I’ll get it,” Kala murmured, pulling it away from his reach and silencing it.

“Kala?” he murmured, then blinked, trying to sit up. “God, K, I had the worst nightmare…”

That brought back the memory of his haunted eyes when she’d first found him last night and Kala’s need to find that fucking clown flared to life again. As much as she had hated the madman before, whatever Jay had seen just made the need to end Joker’s miserable existence burn stronger. “I know, I came and woke you up from it,” she reminded him, kissing his tousled hair. “It’s all right, Jay. There haven’t been any sightings yet. Everyone’s on alert. Everything’s fine.”

Jay sighed, wrapping an arm around her waist to tug her close. “It’s not fine. Joker’s out. You told me. He’s gotta be real pissed about this with Harley. We’ll be lucky if the miserable fuck doesn’t burn the whole city down looking for her.”

It hurt her heart to see how deeply this was effecting him and she felt so damn helpless like this. “We’ll deal with him when we come to that,” Kala promised, pressing a kiss to his forehead, wishing her feelings for him could lessen any of this. “And note that I said we.”

“Duly noted,” Jay told her with a half-sleepy smile. And then he looked up at her, his eyes turning serious. “K … last night.”

Talking about what he’d seen might throw him further off-balance and she couldn’t bear to see that. Better to remind him he wasn’t alone, ever. “It’s all right, Jay,” she promised him. “I’ve got your back, always.”

“I know. I just … I’m not used to anyone being there for me. Like that.” His blue eyes were troubled, his mouth set in a firm line.

Kala settled for the moment, regarding him seriously. “You all right with that?”

“Fuck yeah,” he said with a startled laugh. “I just… What the fuck are you doing with me, Kala? I’m only about halfway back from crazy. And Jesus fuck, you’re damn near perfect.”

She couldn’t help laughing at that. “No, Jay, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Don’t be naïve. I’ve got my share of broken parts, too. You led me out of the dark and taught me to get a handle on my deepest shadows. Talking you down from a nightmare is nothing compared to that.”

“It’s not nothing,” he told her, his voice turning solemn. “How many people you think could even get close to me when I’m like that? I learned real young, the best defense is a good offense. Anyone but you or maybe Alfred would’ve gotten stabbed last night.”

She carded her fingers through his hair, knowing the nightmare had to have been terrible to still haunt him like this. His eyes were almost bruised-looking, something lost and hurt flickering in their depths. “Well, I’m lucky you knew it was me. And I know it was just a dream, but I’d like to beat the shit outta whatever was in your nightmare.”

For some reason, Jay laughed bitterly, shaking his head. “Nah, wouldn’t work. It’s fine. I’ll be fine. Thanks to you.”

“You had it, Jaybird, you would’ve been fine anyway. I just helped you get there faster,” Kala replied.

“Good, because panic attacks fucking suck.” He scowled as he said it, and Kala kissed his forehead. Jay leaned into it, and then sighed. “You gotta get back to the tour. I know that. I don’t like it, but I know it.”

Kala groaned, leaning against him. “I don’t want to.” In that moment, she really didn’t. All she wanted was to be with Jay. He wouldn’t appreciate her getting clingy, or overprotective, but she hated the idea of leaving his side.

Jay leaned back, looking at her seriously. “K, you gotta go. The label’s hanging all this shit on you. You gotta be the manager.”

“The boys know that. They’ll have it together. I just have to be back in time to shower and dress and get on the bus.” The protest sounded weak to Kala’s own ears; she knew it was more involved than that.

He shook his head, and smacked her butt. “Yeah, right. You talk about those guys enough, I’ll be surprised if they’re not running fifteen minutes late. Go on, Supergirl. It’s only a few more shows, then you can come crash here for Christmas.”

Smiling, Kala said, “Someone clued you in?”

“Yup. You’re invited. Frankly, I need you around for sanity. Dick’s gonna lose his goddamn mind and try to make me wear a fuckin’ Christmas sweater or some shit.” Jay managed a smile at that thought.

Kala couldn’t help remembering her own comment to Jason. “Are you okay with that? Not the sweater, me. I know better than the sweater.”

“Yeah, Kala, I’m fine with you being here. You can toast marshmallows with your eyes and stuff. Alfred’ll love that. Shit, I might even smile about the stupid fucking sweaters, if you’re wearing one – and nothing else.” His hand on her hip gave a suggestive squeeze.

She rolled her eyes, but the suggestive remark at least signaled a return to normal operations in Jay’s mind. “If you’re lucky, I might make that happen,” Kala told him, grinning. “You’ve seen the Halloween novelty panties. I’ve got Christmas ones, too.”

Jay laughed, and pushed at her. “Come on. Snowflakes? Candy cane stripes? Prancing reindeer across your butt? This I gotta see – but not right now.”

A little something to look forward to couldn’t hurt. “I have one pair that says ‘Sleighin’ It’ across the back. And another that just says ‘Naughty’.”

“Terrible puns. You know the Robin in me likes that,” Jay replied, a teasing glint in his eye.

Kala leaned forward, and kissed him again, whispering against his mouth, “I also have a pair with no words. Just a bunch of mistletoe – on the front.”

Jay’s hands tightened on her hips, and he kissed her harder before pulling back to growl, “Get the hell outta here, you tease, before I make you late.” He was grinning as he said it though, and that was worth being distracted as she left. Kala kissed him one last time, and then used super-speed to get out the window. It felt really weird flying by day in her pajamas, now that she wasn’t breaking records in her urgency to get to Jay.

Kala flew back in her window, closing and locking it behind her, then checked her phone. Just social media alerts, no messages or calls she had to worry about, and she hurried to get showered. It would only take her seconds to pack, with her speed, but she wanted time for breakfast since she hadn’t eaten at the Manor.

Eating wasn’t the only thing she’d wanted to do this morning at the Manor, and Kala paused while getting dressed, feeling reckless. She told herself it was a good way to make Jay feel better, and not just a thrill to chase away her own worries from last night. Whatever the reason, Kala snapped a quick selfie in just her bra and panties – nothing too scandalous, all the important bits were covered, and she kept her face out of frame so it’d never be identifiable – and sent it to Jay. Sorry they’re not Christmas-themed, she typed.

The phone chirped just as she tugged a t-shirt over her head, and she opened it to see a similar shot of Jay, shirtless, every muscle defined, his boxers tugged low enough for Kala’s imagination to wander. He was just as sensitive to the potential for identity-revealing photos as she was, so he’d kept his face out of the shot – except for his wicked smile. Still lifted my spirits. Among other things. Get to work, K.

With that view, who could focus on work? Smiling, Kala reached for her boots.

And stopped, realizing what she couldn’t hear from the rooms beside her and across the hall. The showers weren’t running in the boys’ rooms, she didn’t hear rustling fabric as clothes were put on or packed up, and she didn’t hear any conversation either. For just one moment, Kala allowed herself to hope that they’d all gotten up early like responsible adults and gone down to breakfast without her.

Then she heard the snoring.

Barefoot – because she had to wake them up before she could finish getting herself ready – Kala stormed out of her room. Ned and Morgan were next door, and she slipped her room key into their reader, barely waiting for it to light up green before she shoved the door open. She always put the extra locks on at night, but the guys often forgot, and today was no exception. The TV was on low, there were pizza boxes sitting out on the table, and both of the room’s beds had a snoring shape under the covers. Kala glared, then picked up the remote and flipped through the TV channels until she found an infomercial that looked loud.

Then she cranked the sound as high as it would go, and suddenly a man’s voice boomed out of the screen, trying to sell something for three payments of $19.99.

Morgan gave a high-pitched scream and tried to leap up, tangling in the blankets and falling out of the bed. Ned bellowed “Fuck!” and sat straight up, flailing at his own pillow. Both of them looked utterly shocked to see Kala standing in their room even as the infomercial guy shouted about the lifetime warranty.

She pushed the mute button almost hard enough to break it, and glared at both of them. “¡Àndale, motherfuckers! We have to be on the bus in an hour, get up, get dressed, get packed! I am not gonna get sued by our corporate overlords because no one else in this goddamn band knows how to set a fucking alarm!”

Morgan stared at her, his hair sticking up wildly. Ned, however, glared right back at her. “Good morning to you, too, Derek.”

Fuck you,” Kala shot back, the words ripped out of her mouth with no consideration, no joking tone to soften them. She was angry, she’d spent the last night worrying about the goddamn Joker, and these assholes couldn’t even do their jobs? And then wanted to give her some sarcastic bullshit like that? Fine, if Ned could dish it out, let him take it, too. “Derek was all up in our faces because he was a fuckin’ Border Collie in a previous life. I just want you to get on the goddamn bus before we’re all in breach of contract. It’s my ass on the line, Ned. I will fucking drag you down there and load you in with the luggage, so help me. You know I can do it.”

“Jesus, Kala, it’s all of our asses on the line,” Morgan cut in. “When you threw down with the label, we backed you up!”

“So fucking act like it!” she shouted, and turned the volume back on, throwing the remote at the sofa.

With that, she stormed out of the room and across the hall. Robb’s room didn’t have the chain on, either, and Kala walked right in, already angry enough to yell, “Rise and shine, Robb! We’re gonna be late if you don’t get your ass in gear right now!”

The yelp that answered was suspiciously high, even more so than Morgan’s, but Kala didn’t care. She picked up one of the sofa cushions and threw it against the form huddled under the duvet. “I said get up ! We should’ve been up half an hour ago, you are not making us late!”

“Kala, wait!” Robb yipped, but she’d already grabbed the duvet and snatched it off the bed in one swift jerk.

Which meant she saw a lot more than she’d expected. Apparently Jennifer had stayed over last night; the blonde grabbed the sheet and yanked it up to cover herself, blushing furiously, as Robb tried to do the same. Kala rolled her eyes. “ Ugh, dammit, both of you move . We’ve got to go.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jennifer tried to say, and Kala cut her off.

“I don’t care!” Kala told her, frustrated, and saw her face fall. This wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t the one breaching contract, so Kala softened. A little. “No, wait, I do care, and I’m happy for you. But I don’t care because we need to fucking leave. C’mon, Jennifer, yours are not the first breasts I’ve seen. Let’s get rolling!”

Kala!” Robb hissed at her, scandalized.

“Robb. If you make me late, I’ll kick your ass the entire way to the venue. Get dressed. And you damn well better set an alarm and schedule a wake-up call next time. Fuck, I hate being the grownup.” With that she stomped back to her room to finish dressing and put on her makeup.

They all stumbled downstairs, dragging their luggage and looking like they’d gotten dressed in a hurry, just in time to board the tour bus. Kala was waiting for them, sitting up front in what had been Derek’s usual seat, and she ignored Ned’s glower and Robb’s wince. Morgan, though, stopped beside her. “All right, I’ll say it. We’re on time – but we wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t woken us up, Kala.”

“Thank you,” she said, unable to keep the frost from her voice. It had been a long, stressful night, and this morning hadn’t made anything better. At least, not the part of the morning since she left Gotham.

She turned to look at them – her boys, her band , and her heart clenched with love and frustration. Shit, if this is what it’s like, maybe I should pass on the whole wanting-kids thing. Still, Kala sighed and said, “Look in the cupboard.”

Robb was closest, so he peeked in, and his face lit up. “You raided the breakfast bar!”

“I tipped a hundred bucks to clean it out,” she said. “All the muffins and bagels and cereal you can imagine. Can’t have you all starving to death.”

“Okay, I can forgive you for waking me up with the gator wrench guy,” Ned said, offering her a smile.

That was enough rapprochement for Kala, and as the bus swung out of the parking lot, she murmured thanks to their driver and stood up, heading back. “Good. Nice to know, Ned. Now if you’ll all excuse me, I’m taking a nap.”

She’d barely managed to roll herself into the bunk when she heard Morgan whisper, “She never naps this early. Wonder if she’s okay.”

“Remember, she wasn’t in her room last night when Jennifer first came over and we all decided to watch a movie together,” Robb whispered back.

“The boyfriend must be following the tour,” Ned said sourly.

In her bunk, Kala laughed to herself, covering her mouth to keep it silent. If they had any clue about the night she’d actually had…

“Well, he’s doing better than us,” Robb said. “He got her back here in time.”

 

 

Probabilities. Possibilities. And wild-ass guesses. Babs had gone through all of them, and ended up here, with her headset in her ear and a dozen sensitive recording devices and signal trackers set up to start the moment she press the Send button.

Gotham wasn’t safe. For her, or for anyone else. Joker had been out less than twenty-four hours and had already robbed a bank, setting fire to a nearby library as a distraction. The bombs that went off inside once it was fully involved were even more distraction, and had caused severe injury to first responders. It was pure luck that no one had died.

He got away from the robbery clean, and there were deaths there, two tellers and the manager shot in the head. At least it was quick. Babs had reviewed the news, and recognized the library with a chill; she’d worked there, right after graduation.

Just coincidence, she tried to tell herself, but there was no room in their line of work for coincidence. Better to treat something as intentional, and maybe Joker was trying to point something out to Harley, remind her why it was dangerous to cross him. Maybe…

Who knew, with Joker? He’d never been predictable. He thrived on chaos.

Which left Babs trying to manage two dangerous operations at once. Gotham was about to get a lot hotter, this winter. At least Steph and Cass were in a purely observational role. Sad when a country recently embroiled in civil war felt safer than one’s hometown, but then, when your home was Gotham, you learned to scoff at the notion of ‘safe’.

No one was ever truly safe. Not anywhere in the world.

Which left Babs with a decision to make. She was the premier information broker in the world, supplying various heroes and vigilantes and doing contract work for Amanda Waller’s Task Force X, too. She’d been the quiet, calm voice in a lot of people’s ears, coaxing and guiding and always listening, always analyzing. She had plans for how to talk down nearly any of Gotham’s rogues who ever crossed her path. Information was power, after all, and she knew everything that the Arkham staff or Waller’s heavily-encrypted files had on all of them.

Some people were harder to pin down, more skilled at not leaving traces. Interpol had a file on the League of Shadows, as did the CIA and FBI, but the information in it was frustratingly thin. Babs had never really gotten an agent inside the organization, either. Hadn’t really tried, to be honest. Bruce could outguess them, most of the time.

And she’d damn near lost Dinah to that fabled al Ghul charisma. She wouldn’t risk another agent like that. Not that Dinah crossing paths with them had been Babs’ idea – she’d tried to warn her away.

This was potentially more dangerous than many of her prior exploits. But Babs didn’t waste resources … and she needed someone to cover her girls. The worst case scenario, if all her theories were wrong, would put them in more danger, though. The question was, how much greater was the potential reward than the potential risk, and if it did turn sour, how would she keep the girls safe?

Babs felt a cold smile curve her mouth. By any means necessary, of course, no matter how underhanded. Bruce was her ace in the hole, in this one, even if he’d taken her aside and told her quietly, “Don’t make that call.”

Which was ironic, in its way, because him realizing that she was considering doing this and telling her not to had pushed her to consider it seriously. There were many ways in which she tried to emulate Bruce, and a few key ones in which she tried to do the opposite of what he would. When it came to trusting people and sharing information, Babs went the latter route.

So she dialed, and waited, headset in her ear. The phone rang six times, then cut off with a beep for voicemail, not even a message. Babs ended the call and redialed immediately. This time, it was answered, and in the beat of silence before either of them spoke, Babs closed her eyes and brought all of her intellect to bear on one goal: keeping Steph and Cass safe.

A faint scoffing noise was the first sound she heard. “When I learn who has been giving out this number, I’m going to have a serious and possibly fatal conversation with that person.”

Babs kept her voice neutral. She left the digital voice scrambler off, for this one. If the call was intercepted, she was already in massive trouble. “Hello, Talia. This is Oracle.”

“Oracle? How fascinating. Well then, to what circumstance do I owe this call?” She sounded guarded, careful, probing ahead for ulterior motives.

She sounded exactly like Babs felt. Now, how to proceed? Mind racing, Babs decided to try something that might be very novel for Talia. She’d responded to novelty before with Selina, playing along with the rules of this ‘prank war’ they had going on. So Babs simply told her the truth. “I have reason to believe you’re in Libya. We might be able to help each other, in that regard.”

“Are you volunteering to assist the League of Shadows? I knew you’d provided support to the tastelessly-named Suicide Squad, but this is unprecedented.” Still, Talia sounded curious. She wasn’t using a digitizer, either, they were both hearing one another’s voices only altered by the relative quality of cell networks.

“I have reasons for wanting the Libya situation contained without any collateral damage. Whatever material support I can offer, short of crossing ethical lines, I’ll give you.” Babs was careful about phrasing that. There were some thing she simply couldn’t do. And pulling Dinah out of Gotham just when things with Joker were heating up was better than crossing any of those lines.

“You have assets in Libya,” Talia said, and Babs didn’t make a sound, didn’t even take a sharp breath, that might hint to her that her guess was correct. “I have significantly more experience and personnel in this region. Pull your people out, Oracle. They don’t need to be here. And you have trouble enough at home.”

So she knew about Joker. And she sounded awfully certain about personnel. Steph thought she might’ve seen Talia… Time to gamble. “I wouldn’t have guessed you’d let yourself be spotted as easily as you were. Betrayed by a sweet tooth? My operative made you at the pastry shop.”

“Your operatives are a pair of teenage girls, and I made them a month ago,” Talia retorted. “The only reason I hadn’t called to tell you to pull them both out is because you wouldn’t listen.”

There was something for Babs to catch onto, and she grabbed it with both hands. “You told Batman to stay out of the Guyot-Perrin deal, and he doubled down. He was wrong, wasn’t he? Everything we’ve found shows they’re involved in legitimate research. Luthor tried to undermine them, and you made sure they had the samples they needed. Batman should’ve just trusted you.” It was certainly an overly simplified reading of the situation, but she needed Talia to believe that Babs was considering trusting her. How she reacted to that trust would be telling.

Soft laughter was her only answer, at first. “You are all so very tiresome. Was it really so hard to believe that I might actually care about developing clean energy solutions? Has that not been a concern of ours for longer than you or the Detective even knew we existed?”

“We’re a very suspicious group of people,” Babs said, sounding conciliatory. One thing she felt certain of, dealing with so many dangerous people, was that appeals to the ego were almost universally attractive. Another was that Talia was just that arrogant.

“That you are,” Talia said. “What exactly are you asking me to do, Oracle?”

Now was the moment she had to choose. Try to play this like every other serial killer she’d ever manipulated into doing good? Or go in an unexpected direction, and see what came of it? Barbara Gordon knew that she wasn’t good at trusting people – she’d known Dinah over a year before she ever met her face to face, or gave her a name.

Cass and Steph were at risk. She couldn’t take chances with them; she wasn’t Bruce. So Babs took a deep breath, and said, “Look after my girls. Make sure they’re safe.”

Absolute silence on the line, for a full ten seconds. Long enough that Babs checked her instruments to make sure the connection hadn’t gone dead. Finally, Talia said, “I beg your pardon?”

“You said it. They’re teenage girls, and you’ve never harmed a child or a noncombatant.” That was a big risk, and Babs knew it. Steph and Cass were both vigilantes with more training than most military personnel, but if she could get Talia to think of them as kids, she might be careful of them.

“I don’t fight children,” Talia said flatly. “Batgirl is no mere child, by anyone’s definition.”

“She’s not even old enough to drink,” Babs replied. “No matter what her abilities are, I don’t want her in the middle of this. But I can’t make Batgirl leave when Shiva’s involved, and Spoiler won’t leave her side. I can’t send anyone to look after them – I don’t have the personnel, and they would resent it, and I don’t have anyone capable of forcing Batgirl to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Right now they’re just observing the situation, but if it all spills over, I’ve got no one who can keep an eye on them.”

Another long, thoughtful pause. “So you’re asking me to look after your strays?”

Babs’ intuition told her now was the time to switch it back, to stop arguing, so she simply said, “Yes.”

The sensitive microphone picked up a sound, a faint thunk like some piece of furniture being kicked. “You really are smarter than he is, aren’t you? And more ruthless.”

“That’s still up for debate,” Babs said, all but holding her breath.

“Barbara, I can’t save them either,” Talia said, a new edge to her voice. “I can’t challenge Shiva directly, not when she has far too many of my people following her. I’ve got to find the center of this rot, see what Shiva knows, and turn it all back on her – preferably without trusting the loyalty of the wrong person and getting a literal knife in my back for the trouble. There is one man in all of North Africa I can reasonably assume still works for me, and he’s busy at the moment. I have neither the time nor the resources to shepherd your operatives out of harm’s way. The best I could do is tranq them both and have them shipped home before the drugs wear off, but we both know that wouldn’t hold Cassandra for long.”

And wasn’t it interesting that she’d immediately assumed what Babs really wanted, and hadn’t quite dared to ask? “I know that, Talia. There’s no stopping Batgirl when she’s determined.”

“That’s been true of everyone who wore that title,” Talia replied. “Have you given any thought to the fact that if you did recall her, she might actually listen? Her concern here is her biological mother, who has never truly been a mother to her. Who do you think meets that description, Barbara?”

“She feels like she has to face Shiva,” Babs said. “And I might love her like my daughter – they’re both my girls – but that doesn’t mean she’ll listen. I’ve gone as far as I dare to, without breaking her trust in me.”

Talia clicked her tongue irritably. “I can’t make you any promises. Tell them to leave this in my hands; it’s my fight, not theirs. And I was trained for this.”

Babs rubbed her temples. What did it say about the current situation that the tranq gun and shipping crate was looking like a good solution right about now? “Batgirl won’t leave now. If I send Batman…”

She laughed at that. “Send him? You mean you’ve successfully gotten him to do something he didn’t think was his own idea? Oh, do tell me how you managed that.”

Her bitter smile was probably in her voice when Babs answered, “Not even I’m that good. But if Batgirl was in imminent danger…”

“Point. Still, with Joker running loose in his city? And Jason so recently returned to him? He might come here to protect Cassandra, but I doubt that. He knows she would resent it. Not to mention, Father would involve himself if the Detective were here. I’d rather not risk that.”

Babs sighed. “Then I suppose I’d better help you. The sooner you can deal with Shiva, the sooner my agents can be convinced to come home. Do you know her objective?”

“You’re welcome to try, but I understand Shiva conducts much of her business face-to-face and by word of mouth. There simply aren’t many electronic traces to follow. As for her goal … she’s either making a serious bid for control of the League of Shadows, or there’s something specific here that she wants. At this point, I’m hoping it’s the former,” Talia said.

“What’s the thing you’re hoping she’s not after?” Babs asked.

Talia answered with another question. “Where are your agents staying, Barbara?”

She couldn’t help bristling at the question, but forced herself to subdue that instinctive reaction. She saw the point Talia was making. “All right, trust only goes so far.”

“I can’t promise to protect them for you, Barbara,” Talia reminded her. “It’s in their best interest, and yours, to convince them to leave this country now.”

“I’ll try,” Babs said, and she was going to do that anyway, even knowing it was likely futile. “Try not to get yourself hurt, either.”

Again that long, considering pause. “You do the same. I rather think Libya is safer than Gotham, just now.”

“Can I reach you at this number if I find anything useful?” Babs asked.

“I’ll keep it active,” Talia said. “Leave a voicemail if I can’t answer.” And with that, she broke the connection.

Babs sat back, pulling the headset off and dropping it aside. She raked a hand through her hair, unsurprised to find it damp with sweat. Stress did that.

There was no time to analyze the nuances of that conversation. At least Talia knew that the Bats knew she was in the region. If she crossed paths with the girls, she might try to protect them. And that was better oversight than anything else Babs could provide just now.

Leaving that conflict simmering, Babs turned back to the one threatening to boil over and ignite in Gotham. Helena and Dinah were both on the street tonight, undercover, trying to unravel the complex web of favors and grudges, alliances and enmities, that wove Gotham’s criminal underbelly together. Trying to find Joker, or Harley, before he found her and murdered her in some spectacular fashion.