Commissioner Gordon burst out onto the roof of the GCPD and forced his shaking legs to carry him to the unlit batsignal. He was not normally much of a praying man, but tonight his whole being was crying, Dear God, please let him be out tonight.
He flipped the massive switch that activated the spotlight, then stood back to light a cigarette with hands that could hardly hold still. He’d been trying to quit, at Barbara’s insistence, but now… She was gone. A smoke wouldn’t fix that, he knew, but perhaps it would lend a sense of normalcy to the god-awful night.
The sound of distant sirens only reinforced his dread. He took a long drag on his cigarette and tried to block out the clamoring worries and fears. Would Batman come? Could he find his baby girl?
A dry sob threatened to emerge, but he covered it with a cough. God, I’d do anything to bring her home safe. She was all he had.
After an eternity standing in the chilly wind, he heard the sound of footsteps behind him. He spun around.
The Dark Knight himself crouched on the ledge, his cape blowing to the side dramatically.
Gordon let out a shaky breath and cleared his throat. “Thank God.”
Batman lifted his chin. “What happened to you?” Apparently he could sense the raw emotion that coursed through him.
“Barbara’s been kidnapped.”
There was no visible reaction from the vigilante, only a loaded silence asking for details.
“She was taken from the street on her walk home from the university. We have few leads, only a few unreliable witnesses from nearby who say they caught glimpses of someone dressed as a ninja.” He dropped his cigarette butt on the roof and ground it out with his foot. “I don’t have any proof, but I fear there’s some truth to the rumors that the League of Assassins has finally made their move in the city.”
Batman grunted. “The Justice League recently drove Ra’s al Ghul into hiding and scattered his assassins. Why would they emerge like this so soon after that defeat?”
Gordon laughed bitterly. “That’s what I want to know.”
“I’ll look into it.” Batman rose to his full height on the ledge, towering over the Commissioner. The two stared at each other in silence for a long moment.
Then Gordon nodded. “If I knew you’d take it, I’d offer you anything you want for returning my daughter.”
“No need for that.”
Suddenly, he found himself asking something he’d always wondered but been too afraid to ask. “Do you have any children?”
Batman turned away and looked out over the city’s skyline. After a moment, he said simply, “No.” Then he leaped off the ledge and sailed away into the starless night, leaving Gordon alone in the chilly wind.
“Hey, you’re new! Are you okay? What’s your name?”
She winced as she began to wake up and the mental fog faded. She shook her head, trying to clear it of the weird voice she’d heard, probably a vestige of some unconscious dream she’d been having. She blinked and forced down the panic at what she saw. A dark stone cell surrounded her, only a hint of light coming from the crack under the door.
Okay, so maybe she was still dreaming.
She was curled up in one corner of the cold floor, still wearing her baggy Gotham University sweatshirt and jeans, but as she stretched out, she realized that the room was too small for her to lay flat. For some reason, that fact startled her the rest of the way awake, and she bolted upright. This was apparently real after all.
What was going on? She remembered walking home in the evening, but then…
She gasped. Someone had struck her from behind, hadn’t they? She reached behind her head and felt the goose-egg lump tenderly. Oof. Then they must have drugged her, for her to feel this out of it.
She shivered and pulled her legs up to her chest.
“It’ll be okay, newbie. I’ll let Dick know to find you if he can. What should we call you?”
She yelped, realizing that the voice was still in her head. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to block it out. It’s not real, it’s not real!
“Oh I’m real, all right.” Despite her efforts, the voice was still there. It sounded like quite a young person, perhaps a preteen or young teenage boy. “Come on, talk to me! I won’t bite, unlike Damian. My name’s Tim.”
She pressed a hand to her mouth and forced herself to stay silent. Whatever this place was, her father would find her. She just had to sit tight and stay safe.
…And ignore the voices in her head.
As soon as Batman set foot inside the hidden mountain compound, he knew it was a trap.
All of his carefully gathered intel, all his study of the comings and goings of the trucks that took the remote dirt path that wound through the Maine wilderness that led him to this concrete culvert in the side of the hill… it was all worthless now.
He wasn’t quite sure what had tipped him off, but something just didn’t smell right, and his sixth sense was vibrating danger.
Before he could retreat and make another plan of approach, a heavy grate dropped over the culvert entrance behind him, locking him in.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the Detective I’ve heard so much about!” A feminine voice echoed through the tunnel.
Talia. It was her voice, no doubt about it, but why was she acting as though she didn’t know him? Something wasn’t right. He crouched and began to walk forward into the dark, damp tunnel. His boots splashed quietly in the inch of water below him.
“Not going to answer me, are you? Come now, Batman, show a little decorum.”
He stopped and cocked his head. “Talia,” he said. “Why are you doing this?”
She was silent for a moment. He guessed she hadn’t realized he would know her voice. “Let’s just say I’ve found that you’re a valuable asset to me and my endeavors. Come in, and I’ll explain the rest to you in person.”
“I look forward to it,” he grumbled.
He picked his way through the tunnel, listening for any further direction from Talia, but there was none. The culvert widened, so that he was able to stand up without brushing his cowl on the ceiling, and finally he came to a fork. Green light emanated from one of the tunnels. He headed in that direction.
He eventually emerged from the tunnel into a dimly-lit laboratory, where several tubes lined the stone stone walls with a viscous green fluid. Strange creatures and deformed beings were housed in several of these tubes. Bioexperiments, then.
Talia sat in an ornate wooden chair at the other end of the room, looking as relaxed as a king surveying his audience chamber. “Welcome, Batman,” she said in a dusky voice, but an iron band of hatred coursed in the undertones. “I’ve waited a long time for this.”
He frowned. This Talia was too young and angry to be the same woman he’d briefly fallen in love with all those years ago. This Talia was not his Talia. “Who are you? You’re not the Talia al Ghul I know.”
She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, looking more interested now. “Ah, so you do know me. Or rather, you knew the old me. I am the true Talia. Talia Prime, if you will.” She rose, and as she did, several shadows detached from the corners of the room and congealed around her, forming a guard of ten strong men, all bearing the mark of the League of Assassins. She gestured at him, and the men immediately surrounded him. “And you, Batman, will be my greatest achievement yet.”
A rat woke her this time.
Barbara could hardly feel her hands and feet, as the cold stone of her cell had seeped into her bones and frozen them. She tried to tuck her hands under her armpits, but then she just got cold all over. Her feet felt like wooden blocks in her shoes.
But she felt the nibble of a rodent on her ankle just fine.
She kicked at it automatically, hitting something solid that went flying away from her. A pained squeak followed. A long silence stretched out after that, and she wondered if her kick had killed the animal.
Her eyes had started to adjust to the extremely dim light over the last few hours—days?—in captivity. She sat up and stared in the direction the squeak had come from. Then she heard a gentle pitter of tiny feet. She watched in fascination as the rat cautiously approached her again. This time, it looked to be carrying something in its mouth.
It came almost within reach, then dropped the object and scampered away toward the far wall again. She realized it could squeeze through a tiny crack where the wall met the floor.
Alone once more, she leaned over to inspect the object the rat had dropped. It was a small packet of dried fruit.
Her stomach growled at the reminder of food. When was the last time she’d eaten? Since she didn’t have her phone, she couldn’t exactly check the time and date. How long had she been in that cell?
“Time really flies when you’re stuck in a windowless cell, doesn’t it?”
She yelped at the sudden reappearance of the disembodied voice. “Who—what—are you?”
“Hey, you actually responded! Progress! I think I introduced myself already as Tim? Or did I imagine that?”
She shook her head slowly. Tim. Was she going mad?
“No, you’re not crazy. At least, comparatively. But aren’t you hungry? We got Damian’s friend to deliver that little packet. I know it’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment.”
She picked up the small snack pack suspiciously. “You want me to eat this?”
“The first stage is always the roughest. Trust me, you’ll want all the calories you can get.”
Before she could even comprehend what the voice called Tim was saying, she heard a distant yell.
“Jason? She’s what?? Sorry, I gotta go.” The voice retreated. It almost felt like a pressure lifted from her mind.
She strained her ears listening to the darkness, but heard no more voices. She looked down at the packet of dried fruit. What did it mean? Her stomach growled again, so she ripped open the packet and nibbled on a cranberry.
What did Tim mean by “the first stage?” She had a sinking feeling that she would find out soon enough.
He hoped Barbara was being treated better than this.
Bruce clenched his fists and winced at the sharp pain as the cuts in his skin stretched and cracked. The port in his arm was a painful lump that he was afraid was doing more than simply monitoring his vitals.
“So, Detective,” came Talia’s voice from just out of sight in his limited field of view, as his head was locked in a brace to keep him from struggling out of his bonds. All he could see was a small portion of the flagstone floor and the feet of the metal apparatus holding him. He could tell she was in the room, though, by how her voice echoed in the underground chamber. “I do appreciate you coming so quickly. Once we have completed our little procedure, you can be certain that I will dispose of you quickly. That is, as long as you cooperate.”
He tried to speak, but the metal gag in his mouth prevented much more than a gurgle.
“It is a shame, though,” she said almost wistfully. Perhaps I can use you in one of my other experiments instead. What do you think?” She laughed. Suddenly, she was there in front of him. She crouched and caressed his bare face. “I do think my father would approve of you.”
His mind raced, putting the pieces together. He’d already spoken to his Talia about that—and Ra’s al Ghul had made it very clear that he approved of a match between them. And yet this Talia spoke as if that weren’t already clear. As if she truly did not know him.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve made up my mind. Tomorrow you will be pitted against my best operative. He could use a little more hand-to-hand training, and after today’s little demonstration with my guards, I do believe you are the right man for the job.” She squeezed the bruise on his forearm. “After all, you owe me for putting so many of my men out of commission.”
She left the room with a small chuckle.
Immediately, he tried to break free. If she had plans for more experiments, he had to get out now and find Barbara. But the bands were too tight, and his every move sent stabs of pain into his spine. He was forced to fall still to catch his breath and fight back the fire in his nerves.
What was she doing to him?
It wasn’t until what had to be hours later that she heard Tim’s voice again. This time she could sense his presence in her head before he spoke. That fact made her a little proud of herself, even though she knew that this was probably still all a drug-induced hallucination.
“Sorry newbie,” he said, sounding almost sheepish. “I kinda got absorbed in something important…”
“It’s Barbara,” she said on impulse.
She got the impression that he was surprised by her openness. “Okay. Barbara.”
“Want to fill me in a bit? What is this damn place? Who are you, really? Why are you in my head?”
“Okay, okay, sheesh. Yes, I’ll tell her! You can’t stop me. Duh. Hold on. No, not now! No!”
She frowned. Who was he talking to now?
A terrible shriek pierced her mind. She cried out and clapped her hands over her ears, but it did nothing to block out the phantom sound. Then as suddenly as it started, it cut off. She lowered her hands. “Uh… hello? Tim?”
A breathless whimper was her only answer.
“Are you all right?” She was beginning to be scared for him now, even though she had no idea who Tim really was. He sounded young, and that was enough for her protective instincts to activate.
“Sorry, this happens, sometimes. Side effect. It’s over now.”
“Side effect of what?!” She was getting frustrated now. “Just give me a straight answer for once!”
“I thought you knew! It’s the reason I’m able to speak to your mind. It’s the reason Damian can tame his critters. The others have their own things going on. It’s all a result of Talia’s experiments. Don’t know how it works, but she somehow isolated the Meta gene and activated it in us.”
“Someone experimented on you?” She couldn’t even begin to express her horror.
“Yeah, but we’re the lucky ones. We survived the process. I hate to break it to you, but it’s probably only a matter of time before she tries it on you, too.”
So far, Talia’s trials had done nothing more than make him angry.
Once whatever “procedure” she’d been doing with the machine he’d been hooked to was complete, she’d dropped him in a round arena with a dirt floor, stripped of all his armor and equipment, down to just his pants and a tank top. He had only his fists, which were still cut up from his fight with Talia’s guards, and his wits.
And yet every thug and mutant beast she threw at him was easily defeated in combat. First it was obviously her most brutish men, which were slow to dodge his fists. Then it was some kind of wolf-like beast, which had been enlarged to twice its normal size.
“Is this it, Talia?” Bruce used the moment’s reprieve between fights to search for her outside the cage of the arena. There she stood, above the heavy door that his opponents entered through. “Are you just going to wear me down with petty attacks until I can’t fight anymore? And then what?”
She smirked at him. “Very well. I’ll give you more of a challenge. I’ve given this one an advantage that you don’t have. Also, he’s going to try to kill you.”
With that, the door opened, and someone entered.
He looked almost ordinary compared to the brutes and monsters he’d faced previously. This was, by appearance, a teenage boy of about seventeen with piercing blue eyes and black hair. He was dressed in a lightly armored black suit—nothing fancy, but enough to protect him while still allowing him to move easily. And move he did.
As soon as the young man saw Bruce, he ducked into a run and zig-zagged toward him. He held a long ninja-style knife in each hand.
Bruce evaded the attack and tried to disarm the kid, but he jumped back lightning-quick, bending into an agile flip to get away. He’s different, he thought. This must be Talia’s “best operative” that she’d mentioned.
They fought in relative silence, their hits broken by grunts of effort as they tried to outfight each other. He recognized Talia’s distinctive fighting style in how the boy moved, but he had his own flair mixed in, with the sensibilities of a gymnast. His maneuvers were unnecessarily flashy, as if he were trying as hard as he could to prove something to Talia.
Despite being primarily focused on his fight with his opponent, Bruce could sense Talia’s patience wearing thin. Neither of them seemed to be able to take out the other—though at full strength and with his equipment, this would be no trouble for Batman. The kid managed to nick him a few times with a knife, always managing to dive out of the way at the last second. That is, until Bruce finally knocked one of the weapons free and claimed it for himself.
Equally armed, they circled each other like hungry animals around a kill. There was an almost feral gleam in the boy’s blue eyes, though Bruce thought he saw intelligence and even empathy there. If he could get through to him, perhaps—
“Stop toying with him,” Talia said, sounding bored. “I’ve given you plenty of reason to kill him. Just do it already. Or there will be consequences.”
The boy’s eyes widened in terror. Then he did something that Bruce did not see coming—he flew.
Oh. So he was dealing with a Meta. He should have anticipated something like this.
The teen flew over him and took a swipe at his head. Bruce ducked, but he felt the swish of the blade near his ear. Too close.
“Impressive,” he murmured. “But you’re overshooting a bit, which leads me to believe that you’re not as comfortable in the air as you want to seem.”
The boy bounced off the arena’s barrier and came back around. “You think? Who are you to judge?” He swung wildly at Bruce’s neck, but Bruce brought up his own knife and blocked it. With little weight behind the swing, the kid rebounded awkwardly into the air.
He’s afraid, Bruce realized. But of what?
“Let’s make this a little more interesting,” Talia said suddenly. The gate on the far end of the arena opened again.
A pack of mutant creatures galloped into the arena and swarmed around Bruce. They had the lithe bodies of large cats combined with the brutal teeth and maws of crocodiles.
The kid automatically leaped into the air above him, to watch the proceedings from a safe distance.
“Have you ever heard of the Egyptian goddess Ammit?” Talia said. “She was said to be the devourer of the dead, and is depicted as having the head of a crocodile and the body of a lion and hippopotamus. As you can see, this is a terrifying combination, and as ravenous as the stories tell. I thought this might be a worthy way to take you out, if my little assassin cannot do the job properly.” She said this with a pointed look at the flying boy.
“I can do it!” he cried. “Give me a chance to prove it!” But he didn’t move from his perch on the barrier of the arena wall.
Bruce crouched, his single knife at the ready. The beasts circled him, growling and drooling hungrily. There were too many to fight with any sort of strategy. If he could just get them to turn on each other, however, he might have a chance to get somewhere safer.
They attacked as one.
He forced his mind into reaction mode, blocking out all conscious thought until he was movement itself. Some part of him knew that Talia wouldn’t let him out of this unless he convinced her somehow that he was valuable and worth keeping alive. But that was all secondary to his focus on becoming one with the air flowing between the creatures, where they could not touch him. He was darkness in the space between the stars…
He wasn’t sure how long the moment lasted, but eventually a stabbing pain in his back broke him out of that flow, and he stumbled. That was the beginning of the end. One of the creatures had clawed his shoulder-blade. He fell to one knee.
“This is your last chance,” Talia said. “I’ve worn him down. Kill him now and I’ll spare your friends the punishment.”
Bruce shoved away another of the gaping crocodile mouths and caught a glimpse of the other occupant in the ring. The flying boy seemed frozen in mid-air, his face pale. But his eyes were furious. Then he dove down toward Bruce, screaming at the top of his lungs, his knife outstretched.
"I want to help you!" Bruce yelled. He rolled to the side and was instantly swarmed by three of the mutant creatures. One of them managed to chomp down on his arm, cutting off anything else he might have said. He grunted, but refused to show Talia his pain.
More of the creatures piled on, sensing weakness at last. They scratched at his arms, his face, and each other as they fought to get a bite of him. Bruce couldn’t move. He could hardly breathe with all those scaly, furred bodies on him.
Then someone barreled into the topmost creature, knocking it into the wall of the arena. The creature whined and lay still.
The boy swooped down and slashed at the one biting Bruce’s arm. Then he dropped down to the ground and fought off the remaining beast that had pinned him.
Bruce pushed himself up, wincing from the many deep cuts and bite marks all over his body. But he picked up his own knife from the dirt floor and took a defensive stance next to the teenager.
The kid glanced at him sidelong before leaping back in the air and slashing at the nearest crocodile cat. “I guess I’m the one helping you, huh?” he said lightly. Then he stiffened. “Three o’clock!”
Bruce moved instinctively just as a creature leaped at his right side. He managed to jab at its flank as it went past, and it retreated. “Thanks,” he grunted. “Let’s get out—“
“No, this won’t do,” came Talia’s iron voice. She whistled and the beasts disengaged and ran back to a trapdoor in the wall. “I’m so disappointed in both of you. Honestly, I expected more from you, Detective. And you.” She walked up to the metal grate and gestured at the teen. “You’re proving to be as pathetic as your parents were.”
The boy dropped heavily to the ground, let go of his knife and began to shake. “No…”
“Talia,” Bruce said. “Why are you doing this?”
She waved a dismissive hand in his direction and continued to stare down the teenager instead. “I think this calls for time in the icebox, so that you can think about this alone.”
“What about him?” The kid gestured at Bruce. “He’s a worthy opponent. Why not keep him around?”
He appreciated what the boy was trying to do, even if it was stupid. Somehow he’d garnered some level of sympathy, even though he’d been ordered to kill him. But Talia would consider this kindness a weakness.
Her sharp green eyes landed on him. “He will accompany you into the icebox. If he is still living when I come back to let you out, I shall kill both of you personally. This will be the last time that you fail me.”
“I’m afraid about Dick,” came Tim’s mental voice.
Barbara rolled over on her stomach in the dark. “Who’s Dick?”
“He’s the one who’s been here the longest. He’s like a brother to the rest of us. But I haven’t heard from him in a while. I know he usually blocks me out when he’s in the arena to concentrate, but it’s been longer than usual.”
“How many of you are there?” she asked. “If you don’t mind me asking?”
“Well, Dick’s the oldest, he’s seventeen I think. Then Jason, who’s sixteen, then Cass—no one knows how old she is for sure, but she’s probably around fifteen. Then there’s me—I’m thirteen. Damian’s eight. He’s the youngest.”
Eight. These were all children, but that was just disturbingly young to be put through all this.
“Eh, don’t feel too bad for the brat. Talia’s his mother, so he’s a special case.”
“His own mother did this to him?”
“He doesn’t talk much about it, but apparently she used to be different. But when she brought him here, she changed. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that. He’s hard to talk to these days, as he’s mostly gone feral. Only Dick really understands him now.”
She had so many questions now. Her stomach growled as she tried to decide where to start. “Do you know how many days I’ve been here?” she asked quietly.
“I think about two and a half—Hang on, I need to check something.”
A few moments later, Tim said, “I’ve just heard from Dick. He’s still alive, thank stars. But he’s getting locked in the freezer for some reason. I won’t have contact with him during that time. The walls deaden our powers.” He sounded scared and young as he related this info. “Oh god, Dick made it sound like he’d done something really bad. Talia might still change her mind and kill him.”
She wished she could comfort this terrified thirteen-year-old kid, but she had no words to say.
“Oh, someone’s coming. I’ll talk to you later, Barbara.”
And then he was gone from her mind again.
Bruce wasn’t sure what he’d expected of the icebox, but this was certainly not something he’d considered. Talia’s guards chained him and the boy and dragged them through the maze of stone tunnels lit by the occasional utility light. But instead of leading them to a dank cell or a pit, they finally stopped in front of a high-tech set of metal doors opened by two key cards from separate guards.
The doors opened and revealed a stark, scientific-looking chamber with bright white lights and a bleached tile floor and walls. There was one metal cot with white mattress on one end, and a toilet behind a privacy screen.
But what concerned him most were the electric ports in the walls and floor that sparked purple and blue in regular waves. And the cameras in the ceiling.
As soon as the boy stepped into the room, he went completely limp. His handlers had to physically pull him across the threshold the rest of the way in order to deposit him on the floor.
“You better wake up quick,” one of the guards jeered, toeing him with a booted foot. “‘Cause if this detective of Talia’s is smart, he’ll take you out before you can try anything!” The men laughed.
One of the guards pulled a knife from his belt. “She said you ought to have a weapon to do the job, since you won’t have your powers. Oh wait, maybe I wasn’t supposed to say that out loud in front of your enemy!” They cackled together again. Then he tossed the knife to the floor in front of the kid.
He stirred at the clatter, then immediately snatched it up. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees and frantically crawled backwards away from Bruce.
The guards went out and locked the doors behind them.
Bruce stared down at the terrified boy. “I said I’m not here to hurt you, and I meant it,” he said, keeping his voice calm and even, hoping that he could stop the panic he saw rising in the rapid fluttering of the boy’s chest. He crouched on his heels, even though the position pulled at his scabbing wounds. “I came here to rescue a friend, but I’d like to try to help you, too, if I can.”
The kid was close to tears as he held out the knife in front of him with both shaking arms. “I can’t, I have to kill you!”
The shaking intensified, but he didn’t lower the knife. “Because, if I don’t, that’s the end for me, and then…” His eyes widened further. “Damian! He’ll go wild! Jason might break for real this time, and the others won’t survive long without my protection. They’re all barely holding on as it is!” He was turning dangerously pale.
Bruce knelt, his hands resting on his knees in a peaceful gesture. “Breathe kid, don’t forget to breathe.” He demonstrated with a deep breath of his own.
The teen gasped, and the tears finally spilled over. “How are you so calm about this?! Talia wants me to kill you? Are you that confident that I’d fail? Is it your power? Well, in this room, you’re not invincible!”
He sighed. “You got a name? I’m Bruce.”
“You don’t get it!” The kid leaped up and lunged with the knife, straight toward his exposed chest.
Bruce met his blue eyes evenly. “No, I do get it.”
The kid faltered mid-attack. He stopped, the quivering knife only inches from Bruce’s throat. “What… what do you mean?”
“I’ve faced death since I was a child,” he said slowly. “I’ve seen evil in nearly every form imaginable. I’ve fought a losing battle for years, and I’ve lost many people I care about along the way.”
The kid sniffed and sank to the floor, exhausted. He did not let go of the knife. “Why should I listen to you, old man?”
“It’s Bruce. What should I call you? Unless you’d rather I call you ‘kid’ forever.”
A long pause, then a quiet sigh. “I’m Dick.”
“All right, Dick. Listen to me because I’m the only one here and I want to help.” He stood and offered a hand. “Listen to me because we can get out of this together.”
Dick rubbed his arm across his eyes, then took the offered hand, allowing Bruce to pull him up again. “You do realize that Talia could be watching and listening to everything through those cameras, right?”
Bruce grunted. “Yes. Talia.” He looked right at the nearest camera. “She’s probably going to wait to see if you murder me in my sleep. And maybe you will.”
Dick just gulped.
“May I?” He gestured at the knife.
“Uh…” Dick drew back for a moment, then slowly placed the hilt of the weapon into his hand.
Bruce instantly threw the knife into the camera, shattering the lens and sending sparks down onto the floor. The momentum carried the whole camera down from the mount on the ceiling, and it crashed into the tiles.
Dick yelped and covered his head.
Bruce stalked over to the device and retrieved the knife. Then he repeated the process with the remaining cameras in the sterile room. “There. I’ll do a more thorough sweep later to check for any other listening or viewing devices.” He handed the knife back. “You’d better hold onto that for now.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll hurt you with it?”
Dick shook his head.
“Well, there you go. I trust you not to use it except in self-defense. Can you trust me not to force you to use it?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Fair enough.” Bruce walked over to the cot. He sat on the far end and patted the mattress. “Come on, let’s talk about those powers of yours.”
“Hey Barbara, I’m back. Everyone’s getting really worried over here. The guards won’t tell us what’s going on. I think the others might do something stupid without Dick around to keep them calm. What should I do?” Tim’s ethereal voice was filled with tension. “It’s been several hours now, and no word. Stars, he’s probably going mad by now, locked in there with the inhibitors.”
Barbara didn’t know what to say. “You implied this has happened before? How long was he in there before?”
“Hang on, I have an idea. You might not like it… it’s kinda weird, but I can host you in my mind so that you can ‘meet’ my siblings. We need to talk together.”
She hesitated. That did sound weird. But Tim sounded desperate. “All right. What do I need to do?”
The relief in his voice was palpable. “Just relax, close your eyes and follow my voice.”
She took a deep breath and tried to do that. “Okay. Now what?"
“Come on, I’ll introduce you to the others!” It sounded like he was talking directly in her ear. She flinched, but forced her eyes to stay closed. She felt something brush against her consciousness in a more tangible way than before. “That’s me,” Tim explained. “Come on, I’ll help you over to my mind.”
She mustered her courage, and followed him into the darkness, leaving her body lying on the cold stone floor of her cell. He was helping her over there—wherever "there" was. "All right, all right," she muttered to herself, trying to keep herself from panicking from the strangeness of it all.
“Now look through my eyes. Got it?”
She focused, and suddenly she saw a light. “Is this what you’re seeing?” If she had hands, she would have rubbed her eyes, but it was more like seeing things in a dream. She couldn’t control what she was seeing.
The view was of another windowless cell, though this one was larger and better lit, with a few stark furnishings. There were several people inside. Children, younger than her.
Tim’s voice, louder now that she was in his mind, reverberated around her. “Hey guys, say hello to Barbara.”
A tall teen with several obvious scars on his face and neck turned to face them. He had black hair with a stripe of white above his forehead. “Hey,” he grunted. “Timster, what good is this supposed to accomplish? You’re just going to push yourself into another fit for nothing. Whoever she is, she’s not able to help us.”
“You don’t know that, Jason! Besides, it’s not like we were making much progress on our own.”
Another person entered Tim’s field of view. This was a solemn-looking girl with dark hair and eyes. She didn’t speak, but she came close to his face and peered into his eyes. It was almost like she was looking right at Barbara through his face.
“Come on, Cass, back up, will you?” Tim pushed her back.
The girl, Cass, moved her hands in a series of motions that looked similar to sign language, but based on Barbara’s knowledge of ASL from her language classes in school, she couldn’t recognize any of the signs.
“No, she’s not with Dick. Sit down and we’ll talk. Damian?”
The third and final person in the room jumped as the name was spoken. He was so small! Barbara was caught off guard, however, when he spun around and actually growled.
“Sheesh, cool down! Way to make a first impression. Let’s talk.”
Tim sat on one of the cots. The others each situated themselves in a unique manner. The one called Jason sat with his head tilted back against the wall, as if he wasn’t interested in listening. Cass wrapped one of the thin blankets around her head and tucked in her arms and legs in the little tent. Damian, however, paced back and forth like a caged tiger. A few rats scurried around his feet, squeaking.
Barbara didn’t know what to make of this odd trio. And then there was Tim himself, who she couldn’t see due to being in his head. She caught glimpses of his pale hands as he gestured, but beyond that, she had no idea what this precocious kid looked like.
“All right, Barbara. Welcome to the Robin’s Nest.”
Jason rolled his eyes and sighed. “Would you stop calling it that?”
“Shut up,” Damian said, losing a bit of his animalistic growl in favor of a scratchy child’s voice. “Grayson was here first, he had every right to name it whatever he wanted.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to call it that, though.”
“It does if I sic my rats on you.”
Cass retreated further into her blanket.
“Guys, please,” Tim whined. “I know we’re all worried about Dick, but he would want us to keep it together and stay calm.”
Cass nodded and put a hand on Jason’s arm. He softened in return. “Fine. What’s your deal, Timmy?”
“The last thing Dick said to me before he was locked up was that he was getting put in the freezer with a newbie. Obviously, as Barbara is with us—“
“Shut up, Todd.”
Barbara’s mind was spinning from all the bickering. She was still trying to get over the fact that these kids were captives here, and had been for quite some time. And what on earth had caused all those scars on the oldest kid? Jason, she recalled, was about sixteen according to Tim. Why did it look like he’d been through a terrible accident that ripped his skin to shreds before he healed?
And why didn’t Cass speak? She didn’t seem to be deaf, judging by the way she responded to their conversation nonverbally.
Each of these kids bore some kind of terrible trauma, and Barbara wasn’t sure she even wanted to know what it had been.
“Uh, Tim?” She asked hesitantly. “Can I talk to them?”
He stopped short. “Barbara wants to talk to us. Go ahead,” he said to her. “I’ll transmit your words to them as well. Linking up now.”
He grunted as if the effort pained him, and suddenly, the mental space she was in felt crowded. Several other foreign presences had joined her in Tim’s mind.
“Come on, Timmy, this is a bad idea. You’re going to trigger a fit.” That was Jason’s voice. To her surprise, he sounded intensely worried.
“No, I can do it! Go ahead, Barbara. We’re all here.”
“Grayson isn’t here.”
Barbara steadied herself. “Hi, everyone. Tim mentioned me already. I’m Barbara Gordon. Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, yeah, big whoop.”
“Jason, be nice!” Tim sounded positively scandalized at Jason’s rude tone.
Barbara decided to ignore it and continue. “Tim told me that your friend has been taken to the ’Freezer.’ What does this mean?”
“It means Mother is angry with him," Damian said. “He must have done something terrible in the trials today.”
Tim cut in. “I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, that Dick said he was supposed to fight a newbie, but the trial went far south and Talia’s locking both of them up for an undetermined time. He sounded pretty shook up.”
“Who do you think this newbie is?” Jason mused. “Another Meta experiment?”
“It would have to be,” Damian said. “No ordinary human could ever get the best of Grayson. I bet he could even take out Mother with the proper motivation.”
“I never thought I’d hear the baby bird talk smack about his own mother like that,” Jason laughed.
Damian’s presence in the mental space flashed and vibrated violently.
“Great,” sighed Tim. “That set him off. This one’s on you, Jase.”
Cass’s presence expanded and encompassed Damian in a strange ethereal embrace. Even without verbal communication, Barbara could understand her. She was offering him comfort.
As messed up as these kids might be, it was clear that they all cared about each other.
“To answer your question, Barbara,” Tim went on, “The Freezer is where Talia puts us to punish or isolate us when we have an episode. It blocks our Meta abilities, making us feel weak and powerless. It’s a mind game as much as anything. And it really works. Last time she put Damian in there, he nearly chewed his own arm off.”
“Hey, that wasn’t my fault!” Damian had recovered from whatever had affected him earlier. “Besides, last time you were in there, you screamed yourself hoarse.”
“So,” Barbara said, hoping to cut off any further unproductive bickering. “How is your friend likely to react?”
“Dick is strong,” Tim said. “But he worries about the rest of us so much. I’m not as concerned about it blocking his power, but he’ll drive himself to insanity if he can’t check in on us.”
“Perhaps you should give him more credit,” Barbara said slowly. “I don’t know Dick yet, but if I were in his shoes, I’d do my best to trust that my friends could take care of themselves for a little while. And you can do that, can’t you?”
They mumbled and shifted about in response.
“I guess so,” Tim said. “I just wish there was something—“ He cut off suddenly, and a great pressure slammed into Barbara from all sides.
“Get out NOW!” came Jason’s voice. “All of you! He’s having an episode! Get back to yourselves!”
Barbara was at a loss. “But—“
Cass grabbed her. It was the only way to describe the way she was yanked forward and then shoved. As she floated back toward her body, she almost thought she heard a feminine voice say softly, “Go.”
And then the screaming began.
Dick sat crosslegged on the far end of the single cot and considered the strange man across from him who called himself Bruce. The big guy was carefully binding the bite wound on his arm, which was the worst of his injuries from their fight with Talia’s Ammit mutants. He’d said very little since he’d asked about Dick’s powers.
He’d told him the basics, but nothing more. He could fly, yes. No, he hadn’t been born with these abilities. Talia had “unlocked” his Meta gene through her experiments after he’d been taken into the compound. He’d had to learn how to control his power, and then she’d taught him how to use them to fight.
He didn’t tell Bruce why he feared flying, or why he loved it. He didn’t tell him about what Talia had done to his family. He didn’t tell him about his new family, or the Robin’s Nest, the many trials he’d been forced to endure, or why he was currently shaking even though he had the room’s one blanket tucked around him. He didn’t talk about his weakness.
“Soooo,” he said at last, drawing out the vowel. “What’s your power?”
Bruce stopped binding his wound with the strip of his shirt. “What do you mean?”
“Come on, don’t play dumb. I know Talia ran some experiments on you. Didn’t she unlock your Meta gene too?”
Bruce sighed. “I don’t know.”
“Whaaaat?” He had to be lying. Dick refused to believe that he’d been able to hold his own in the trial ring without powers. “Seriously, you’re not going to tell me?”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Bruce grunted, and finished wrapping his arm. “I think she just wanted you to kill me and be done with it. Though why she brought me here in the first place, I haven’t deduced yet.”
Dick decided to let it go, but it was still suspicious. Whoever this guy was, he knew how to hold his cards close to his chest. “I’m just glad getting cut off from your power doesn’t make you go insane…” He trailed off, and realized that the man was staring at him intently. “What?”
“Is that what happens to your friends? The ‘others’ you’ve mentioned before?”
Eeysh, he was too good at guessing. “Yeah, whatever. Don’t worry about them. That’s my job. It’s good you’re stuck with me instead of, say, Cass. Or Damian. They’d rip you to shreds or kill themselves in the process.” He shuddered involuntarily, and whispered, “Like Jason.” The Freezer was the one place he actually feared for Jason’s life. If he failed to protect them all and Jason ended up here again, there was no telling what he would do to himself next time…
No, don’t let yourself go there, he told himself firmly. He was here now so Jason wouldn’t have to go in the Freezer again. He had to stay alive so he could protect all of them from Talia. And themselves.
“Are you all right?” Bruce asked, apparently picking up on his sudden shift in mood.
“If I don’t kill you,” he said at last, “We’re both dead. So no, I’m not all right! What am I going to do about Talia, huh? Any bright ideas?”
Bruce nodded slowly. “Several, actually.”
Dick’s rising rant died in his throat. “Stars, really? You think we can get out of here?” He tried not to let the bud of hope in his chest bloom up again. Every time he’d ever tried to look beyond the walls of the compound, he’d been kicked down again. Why should this time be any different? What did this man know that could possibly help?
But the confidence in Bruce’s eyes spoke volumes. Either he was incredibly skilled and intelligent, or he was the world’s biggest delusional fraud.
“All right,” he said warily. “What do you have in mind?”
Barbara rolled over and groaned. Her head felt like someone had taken a jackhammer to her temples.
“Ow,” she grumbled, and tried to push herself up. Her arms were as stiff as ironing boards. What had happened?
The last thing she remembered was being shoved out of Tim’s mind by Cass. Was that real? It was too bizarre, too unlike anything she had ever experienced before. She had no category for it in her brain.
Oh, he’d been screaming. That’s right. She frowned as she remembered the agony in his mental voice. The “episode” as Jason had called it, had been excruciatingly painful for Tim. She’d felt a fraction of it before she was launched back to her own body. That was probably why her head hurt so bad now.
What have I gotten myself into? She wondered. She tried to rub life back into her cold limbs. They began to tingle as the blood flowed in her veins more freely.
She noted that her captors still had not fed her. That was disconcerting, to say the least. Her stomach had all but given up on the idea of food.
One of Damian’s rats scampered up to her and dropped a small corner of bread.
“Thanks, little guy,” she murmured and picked up the bit of food.
She heard a groan, and instantly froze. She strained her eyes looking about the tiny cell, but her sensitive eyes didn’t catch any signs of movement.
“Hello?” she asked.
“It’s just me,” came Tim’s voice in her head, and she relaxed. But he sounded pained.
He groaned in answer.
She hummed in sympathy, even though she didn’t really know what was wrong with him.
“Jason’s making me stay in bed now.”
She nibbled on the crust of bread. “Probably for the best. He sounds like a good big brother.”
Tim made a choking laugh sort of sound. “Don’t let him hear you talk like that. He keeps insisting that he doesn’t owe us anything, that we’re not really family, no matter what Dick says.”
“That’s silly. Even from the little bit of interaction I had with you all, it was plain to me that you’re a family that takes care of each other.” She finished off the mouthful of bread and swallowed. “And now you’re all taking care of me, too, aren’t you? This bread came from Damian, didn’t it?”
“Ha, he sent you more food? Course he did. He might be on the verge of going literally feral, but he’s got a sweet heart in there, just like Jason.”
She hesitated, wondering how to broach the subject of what had happened earlier. “Tim, how serious are these ‘episodes’ that you have? You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she added quickly. “But I’ll admit, that was pretty scary. I felt you screaming in my head again.”
He fell silent for a while. At last he said, “My Meta power is telepathy, in case you haven’t noticed.”
She smirked. “No way.”
“The Meta gene isn’t 100% stable. As it turns out, it brings along a host of quirks and genetic issues. Some of them are linked directly to the use of our powers. For me this is especially obvious. I’m slowly going a bit crazier every time I overuse my powers. The thoughts of those around me can overwhelm my brain, all the voices rush into my head at once, and it really hurts. I’m sorry that spilled over onto you.”
“Then why the heck are you talking to me now! You should be resting!”
She rolled her eyes. “Kids.”
“And,” he went on, completely serious now. “I’m still worried.”
“About Dick?” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “How about this: every time you start to worry about him, tell me a fun fact about him. That way I can sort of get to know him through you, so I can properly scold him for making you worry when he gets back.”
“That’s a funny thought,” Tim said, sounding a little better. “But I like it. I think he’d—“
Before he could finish his sentence, heavy footsteps clomped right outside her cell door, and she bolted upright. “Someone’s here,” she whispered.
“Oh no,” Tim said. “Already? They must be moving forward with experiments.”
She pressed herself into the corner as someone fiddled with the lock. “What’s going to happen? What do I do?”
“Stay calm!” He didn’t sound calm himself, so the words had very little effect on her. “They’re probably going to activate the Meta gene. It hurts, but it’ll be over soon. And who knows, maybe you’ll end up with a cool power.” He wasn’t convincing anyone with his mustered enthusiasm.
The door opened. Three masked men entered the tiny room, filling it to complete capacity. “Come quietly,” one of them said, holding out a set of handcuffs.
She balked and pressed herself against the wall even more. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest. “I never agreed to come here,” she said shakily. “This is highly illegal. Let me go at once!”
But of course they didn’t listen. The one with the handcuffs surged forward and grabbed her wrists. He wrenched her arms to slap the cuffs on them.
“Hey, be gentle with her!” Tim was yelling in her head, but the guards seemed to hear him too. They flinched back briefly.
“Stay out of this, brat,” one of the men growled. “Or you’ll be punished. You know the rules.”
“I’m just saying be careful,” Tim grumbled. Then he said to her, “Don’t react, but they can’t hear me now. I’m just speaking to you directly.”
She swallowed down her panic as the guards pulled her to her feet. She didn’t dare respond aloud.
“Listen, I know I’m just some weird kid in your head, but I’ve been through this already, and if you’d like, I can stay with you as long as I’m able to.”
“Okay,” she whispered, hoping he could hear her as the guards pulled her out of the dark cell.
Jason watched Tim’s face tighten with emotions that shifted from fear to anger, and then to a resigned stubbornness. He was probably talking to that Barbara girl again. He still didn’t trust her, even if Tim insisted that she was as much a prisoner as they were. He didn’t easily let other people in. He wasn’t sure he even had any more room left in his cynical heart for another person. Dick might insist on calling them a family, but it wasn’t really true, not in his book. They relied on each other for good reason. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t survive long.
He sat on the tile floor and stretched his legs one at a time as he kept one eye on Tim and one eye on Cass, who was bundled up in her makeshift blanket fort under the top bunk. She had refused to come out ever since Tim’s fit, hours earlier. He could see her light on inside, silhouetting her face against the blanket. He was worried about all of them, really. He wasn’t sure where Damian was at the moment, but he’d been more withdrawn and crabby since Dick had been taken from their rooms.
The rooms were little more than three connected cells: they’d rearranged their sparse furniture to make it as homey as possibly. This room that the three of them were currently in was their “bedroom,” with two bunk beds facing each other, and another smaller bed on the end. Then there was the bathroom, and finally the “training” room, where Dick insisted on having them practice their abilities, spar, and maintain their physical condition for any trials that Talia might spring on them.
It should have been him, not Dick, that was taken for the trial. He’d be able to withstand so much more. Dick was tough and cunning, sure, but he couldn’t take a blade to the heart and walk it off. That was the one thing that gave Jason the most anxiety. He couldn’t always be there for them and take their blows for them.
And he couldn’t fully deny the jealousy that stung him every time Dick was picked for the trials instead. Talia might be amused by seeing him writhe on the floor as his wounds scarred over, but she still valued Dick more than any of them.
Jason picked up one of Damian’s pencils from the floor and inspected the sharp point. Dick had forbidden him from holding any sharp objects, but then again, Dick wasn’t here, was he?
He braced himself and jabbed the sharpened pencil tip into the skin between his left thumb and pointer finger. He gasped from the pain of the wound. Tears filled his eyes automatically. He hated that this was the only way he had to cope with his stress, but it wasn’t like he could talk it out with Dick right now. Everyone had to fricking rely on him now, didn’t they? He tossed the pencil aside and stared at the bloody gouge in his hand.
Slowly, painfully, the skin around the wound began to bubble up and scar over. The tears continued to flow down his cheeks from the agony of the process, but he intentionally kept his breathing even so that he wouldn’t disturb Tim or Cass.
“Why must you be like this, Todd? You’re going to give yourself tetanus if you continue to injure yourself in this manner.” Damian stepped into the room, his towel draped around his sweaty neck. He bent over and picked up the bloodied pencil. “Ruined.”
Jason quickly wiped his eyes and looked away. “Leave me alone, brat.”
Damian growled a warning. Great, he’d awakened the feral beast inside. “Don’t call me that!”
“What, would you rather I called you ‘mongrel?’” He couldn’t stop the words from coming out. He wanted to lash out. He wanted Dick to yell at him. He wanted to start a fight that their “big brother” would have to step in to stop.
Damian’s transformation at the words was incredible. He lowered his body into an aggressive stance, like a wolf about to pounce. Jason could almost see his hair standing up like the hackles of an animal on the defensive.
Jason flexed his left hand into a fist. The wound was almost completely covered over by bright red scar tissue now. It still hurt like hell but the bleeding had stopped. He’d dealt with much worse. The scars on his chest twinged as he remembered.
Damian suddenly pounced, his hands extended like claws.
“NO!” Cass screamed, and suddenly she was between them. Jason was pushed backwards by an invisible force, and slammed against the far bed. The wind was knocked out of his lungs, and he gasped for air. Damian was also flung back, and he hit the door just as hard.
Cass collapsed to the floor. She whimpered softly, staring at her trembling hands.
Jason recovered before Damian. He scrambled over to Cass and knelt next to her. “Hey, Cass-lass,” he croaked. “It’s okay. I’m not hurt.”
Damian also trudged up next to them. “I am unhurt as well.”
She pushed away from them, shaking her head.
He didn’t reach out to her. He’d learned long ago that any attempt to restrain or hold Cass would end badly. He just stayed where he was, perched on his haunches, as she shrank back. “It’s okay,” he said, feeling helpless again. Dick would know what to do. He could always calm her down. He could always calm all of them down.
Even Damian looked on the verge of tears. Guilt was etched all across his face. “I am sorry,” he whispered. He looked at Jason helplessly. “I didn’t mean to—“
“We both lost control,” Jason offered. “We’re all on edge.”
“I miss Grayson.”
Jason only nodded. He glanced over at Tim, who was still lost in his meditative state on his bed. The commotion hadn’t been enough to pull him out of it. Idiot. If he kept at it like this, he would bring on another episode.
They were falling apart at the seams already, and Dick hadn’t been gone longer than a day. If he didn’t come back soon, they were all in danger of destroying themselves. That was, unless Jason could get it together and become the leader they needed. He rubbed the new bright red scar tissue on his healed hand and wondered if he was just too broken to do the job.
Tim chatted on in her head, obviously trying his best to keep her distracted from the unknown terror of what Talia’s men wanted with her. It wasn’t really working, though. She couldn’t really hear him over the roaring sound in her ears as her heart pounded too fast.
The masked men brought her through the maze of tunnels that all looked alike to her. There was no way she would be able to remember all the turns they took.
At last they came to a heavy metal door in the stone wall. One of the men knocked, then opened it with a keycard.
A starkly sterile laboratory greeted them.
Tim’s voice spiked suddenly. “Wait, no! They’re going to do the procedure in another freezer?! I won’t be able to stay in contact once you—“
The men shoved her over the threshold into the stark room, and Tim’s voice immediately grew faint. She could hardly hear him now.
“I’m sorry! I would have tried to stay with you the whole time. Just try to stay calm, and it will be over soon…”
She bit her lip to keep herself from making a noise of panic.
The door shut, blocking out any trace of Tim’s voice from her head.
“Greetings, Miss Gordon.” A svelte dark-haired woman stepped out into the harsh white lights of the lab. She smiled demurely and waved the guards aside. “Let me get a better look at you.”
Talia. This had to be the woman she’d heard about from Tim. Her father had spoken of her as well. Talia al Ghul, the mysterious heir to the League of Assassins.
“What do you want with me?” she asked, forcing her voice to stay steady. “Ransom money? Or are you trying to manipulate my dad?”
Talia laughed. “I couldn’t care less about your insignificant father. But you, on the other hand…” She tapped Barbara’s chin with a sharply manicured fingernail. “You were bait for someone I needed more. As long as you’re here, however, we may as well make use of you in my ongoing experiment.”
“You mean like Tim and the others? You’re going to mess with my body and mind like you did to them?” She tried to lean away from Talia’s touch.
“Oh, so you have met my little housepets, how nice. And yes, after all the experiments, I think I’ve finally perfected the process of activating the Meta-gene. It’s up to you to survive the process now.” She snapped her fingers and the guards crowded around once more. “Let’s hope that you’re made of sterner stuff than you look.”
It was time to enact the plan.
The two of them had put their heads together for hours, talking through any possible weakness in the chamber, anything they could use as a weapon, and strategies to find Barbara and the others and escape the compound alive.
Bruce was impressed again and again by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the teenager before him. Dick was a wonder, truly. After recovering from his near-breakdown, he’d bounced back one hundred percent, and his enthusiasm was infectious.
“Okay,” Dick said, picking up the knife. “Let’s give it a shot and hope it’s enough.”
Bruce hefted the metal frame of the cot that he’d disassembled, being careful not to aggravate his injuries. “It’s going to work,” he said. “Just be ready to fly as soon as we’re out.”
They stepped around the many ports in the floor where electricity crackled and sparked, somehow limiting Dick’s Meta powers. They reached the metal doors.
“Ready?” Dick asked with an excited grin.
Bruce grunted and adjusted his grip, using the rubber pad they’d scavenged from the underside of the mattress to hold the metal bar. Then he jammed one end of the bar into the closest electric port and wedged the other end into the blinking lock panel on the door.
He jumped back as the power jolted through their makeshift circuit and into the high-tech doors. Even with the protection of the rubber pad, some hairs got singed on the back of his hands.
The lights surged brighter in the fluctuation of power, and suddenly every light and electric port burst into sparks and went dark.
“Yes!” Dick leaped into the air and stayed aloft. “It worked!” He zipped around the room in glee.
Bruce watched in the dim emergency lights, still a bit in awe at the teen’s ability. It wasn’t natural, but Dick made it look like it was. One thing still seemed off, however—Dick never went higher than a few feet off the ground, even though part of the chamber had a high ceiling. It was almost like he was afraid of going any higher. He shook off the shiver that crawled down his spine, and instead turned his attention to the doors. The lock panel had sparked and overloaded as well, and was now as dark as the rest of the room. He stepped up to it and heaved at one of the doors with all his might. It didn’t move.
“Hand me that knife,” he ordered. Dick swooped up next to him and handed it over hilt first. He wedged it in the crack between the doors and slid it up and down until he could find the latch. It would be easier to do this with the proper tools. But he managed.
The lock finally clicked, and the door gave way under his next heave.
Together they peered out into the hall. Just as he’d hoped, the freezer’s electric system was isolated, so they hadn’t yet alarmed any guards with the power surge. Good.
“Lead the way,” he said to Dick.
“Just a sec,” he said, and pushed his fingers against his temples as if they pained him. “Tim? You there?”
Bruce waited for three long seconds. “Well?”
Dick slumped. “He’s not there yet. He’s probably distracted by something else. I hope he’s okay…”
“Only one way to find out,” Bruce pointed out.
“You’re right. Let’s go.” Dick ran ahead, his feet barely touching the ground as he used his power to aid him.
Bruce ran along behind, still gripping the knife in one hand. He focused on listening for any sounds of discovery or pursuit by Talia’s guards. So far, things were going suspiciously smoothly. What was Talia up to?
Dick suddenly halted as if he’d flown into an invisible wall.
“What is it?”
A moment later, he grinned. “Tim’s made contact. It’s all right Tim, he’s with me.”
“If you say so, Dick.” The voice in his head would have startled him, if he hadn’t known to expect it after Dick had filled him in a bit about his found family’s abilities. “What’s going on?”
“We’re breaking out,” Dick said breathlessly.
“Right now. Gather the others. We’re gonna have to move fast. And could you be a dear and check for guards around us? Please and thank you.”
“No guards in the normal route. They’re all with Barbara.”
Bruce breathed in sharply. “Barbara is who I came here to rescue! Is she all right?”
“Don’t know. Can’t contact her at the moment. Either she’s still in that new freezer lab, or she’s unconscious.”
Bruce gritted his teeth. That wasn’t good. But he tried to focus on the first task. “We’ll get you out first,” he said. “But let us know if you detect her immediately.”
“Who do you think you are—“
“Just do it, Tim,” Dick sighed. “I’m on my way with Bruce.”
The response to this story so far has been incredible! :O Thank you for all your wonderful comments. <3 I hope you enjoy this next installment.
Please note: in case you couldn't tell from the first part, this story does deal with some violence, PTSD, referenced self-harm, and other issues. I'm keeping it to a PG-13ish level, but just be aware that there may be some potentially triggering moments for those who are sensitive to those things.
(also very minimal editing going on here, so if something doesn't make sense let me know LOL)
Tim rubbed his tired eyes. He hadn’t slept in a while, and it was beginning to get to him. But if Dick said they were breaking out now, he’d force himself to focus. They’d trained for this.
And he’d do anything if it meant they’d finally be able to see the stars again.
“Did he say how long?” Jason asked. He pulled on his sweatshirt and wrapped his hands with athletic tape.
Next to him, Cass was arranging her blanket around her shoulders like a cape and grinning ear-to-ear. At least someone was happy about all this.
“They weren’t far. They’re coming straight from the freezer. Damian, put your shirt back on!”
Damian, crouched on all fours on the floor, bit his t-shirt and shook his head like a puppy. Three of his pet rats wove between his bare arms, squeaking.
Cass took the chewed garment from his mouth and shook it out. She frowned at the spot his saliva had made.
“Gross,” Tim said, wrinkling his nose. “Jason, do we have any spares?”
Jason rolled his eyes but dug into his cubby at the foot of the bed for a sweatshirt. It was a little large for Damian, but they were out of time. He yanked it over Damian’s head and tried to force his wriggling arms through the sleeves. “Stop it,” he said through his teeth. “Don’t you want to look nice for Dickie and his new pal?”
Damian broke free and scratched at his face, leaving three red welts. The shirt hung halfway around his neck, the arms flapping uselessly behind his back.
“Ow! Stars, that hurt! One of you deal with him, I’m done.”
Cass stepped forward and raised her arms. She frowned and concentrated. Suddenly, Damian went rigid. He whimpered wordlessly.
“Cass, you’re scaring him,” Tim said slowly. The last thing he wanted to do was to set her off as well.
Using her powers, she very gently guided the sweatshirt over his arms and settled it in its proper place without ever touching him physically. Then she lowered her arms and Damian flopped to the floor. He curled up into a ball and sniffed. Cass bent and patted him on the head.
Satisfied that the potential disaster had been averted, Tim closed his eyes again to search for any sign of Barbara. But he could find none of her signature presence in the compound. She was still out of reach.
Instead, he checked in on Dick and found that he was nearly to the tunnel where the entrance to their rooms was. The other presence, the man Dick had called “Bruce”, was close behind.
The guards were still nowhere nearby.
He stood up. “Okay, Dick’s almost to the Robin’s Nest. Ready?”
Damian crossed his arms over his clean shirt, looking a tad less feral now. “Tt. Of course.”
All four of them stood and faced the door.
“Cass, we may need your assistance to open it,” Tim said.
She nodded and raised her hands. She concentrated and then pushed out with an invisible wave of force.
The door creaked, but didn’t budge.
She lowered her hands and shook her head. She signed, using their invented sign language, Not angry. No emotion, no power now. Sorry.
“It’s okay,” Jason said. “I got this.”
“No, you’ll get hurt!” Tim began, but it was too late.
Jason yelled and barreled into the door shoulder-first. Something cracked, and it wasn’t the door. He gasped and fell to one knee. His right arm hung limp. “Ow,” he said.
“Idiot,” Damian said. “What did you expect?”
“It’ll heal fast,” Jason responded, but the sweat on his forehead indicated how much pain he was in.
Cass gestured furiously at them all to move aside. Before you mush-brains kill yourselves, she signed.
Jason winked at Tim. Ah. So his plan all along was to rile her up a little. Still idiotic, but like, smart too.
Cass lifted the entire bunk bed using her telekinesis power until it hovered a foot above the floor. Then she yelled wordlessly and slammed it into the door.
The door smashed out into the hall.
“Atta girl,” Jason whispered.
Dick flew into the open door. “My stars, you kids know how to throw a party!” He landed and cocked his head toward the tunnel outside.
Damian flung himself at Dick and latched his arms around his waist like a baby sloth.
“Aw, I missed you too, bud,” Dick said with a laugh. Then he noticed Jason’s injured arm. “What did you do now?!”
Jason waved his good hand vaguely. “I weakened the door for Cass to knock down.”
Cass stuck out her tongue at him.
Dick patted Damian’s back. “You ready to go? Bruce is right behind me.”
Jason leaned close to him. “What’s his power?”
For the first time since returning, a troubled look flashed across Dick’s face. “I don’t know, he won’t talk about it except to deny he’s got any.”
“Then how are you sure you can trust this guy?”
Dick shrugged. “He’s all we’ve got right now. He could have killed me several times over by now, but he says he wants to help. Why not give him a chance to prove it?”
“Tt,” Damian scoffed. “We don’t need anyone’s help.”
“That may be so, but you have it anyway,” came a deep male voice. Tim recognized it as belonging to Bruce. A tall, dark-haired man stepped around the corner and nodded at them in greeting. His dark tank top did little to hide his impressive muscles. The dude was ripped. He moved easily despite the recent injuries that marred his skin.
“Stars,” Tim squeaked, then coughed to cover his embarrassment.
The big man looked right at him. Automatically, Tim scanned his thoughts:
Thirteen, not quite into puberty, a bit undernourished like the rest, worry lines in forehead, possibly the strategist of the group. Frightened.
Tim flinched. He hadn’t expected such frank, well-organized thoughts. Most people had a mess of emotional responses cluttering up their minds.
Then Bruce surprised them all by crouching to one knee. He was now closer to Damian’s height. He looked around at each of them, and his thoughts went through the same quick evaluation as they had when he looked at Tim. “I told Dick the truth,” he said calmly. “I came here for someone else—for Barbara—but I won’t turn my back on you if you’ll accept my help. Besides, I have a feeling our chances are better together anyway.” He directed this last comment toward Jason, somehow recognizing which of them would be the most troublesome.
Jason folded his arms across his chest, ready to shoot back a mouthy reply. Tim was about to offer to scan his mind for any signs of deception.
But before either of them could speak, Cass stepped toward Bruce, her blanket-cape dragging on the tiled floor behind her. She poked his forehead. Then she leaned close and stared into his blue eyes.
Bruce, amazingly, didn’t pull back or frown. He let her prod his face and met her gaze clearly.
Then she stood up and nodded to Jason. She signed a single word, Truth.
“See?” Dick said. “Cass believes him, so he has to be all right. Besides, if he turns on us, she could always smack him into the ceiling.”
Bruce bowed his head. “Good. Now, which one of you is Tim?”
Tim held back another squeak. “You want me to check for Barbara again?” He took a deep breath. “Hang on.” He closed his eyes and reached out mentally to search for any sign of his newest friend.
He blocked out the noisy thoughts of his family—not an easy feat—and followed the sensation of thoughts he could feel emanating from differently spots in the compound. Most of them were League assassins and guards, training in pairs or patrolling the tunnels under Talia’s orders. A few were grouped in a central area, where Tim assumed Talia was giving new orders or discussing their next experiments. He was careful to skip over Talia’s mind, as she could always sense when he brushed against her thoughts.
Where is she? He was beginning to worry that Barbara was unconscious, or otherwise unreachable by his powers. He reached out toward the freezer, but of course he sensed nothing inside.
Then he felt it. She was groaning somewhere in pain.
He mentally flickered back toward where he’d sensed her thoughts. They were groggy, not fully formed.
“Barbara?” he thought in her direction. “You okay?”
She didn’t acknowledge him.
He took note of her location. She was back in her cell, with four of Talia’s meat-grinder guards standing outside. He didn’t sense thoughts from anyone else, which probably meant that they had normal security on watch. That was good.
He pulled back to his body and blinked at the others. “I’ve found her. She’s back in her cell, but not fully responsive yet. Guards outside, but not too many. We can probably take ‘em.”
“And after that?” Bruce asked calmly. “Do you know how people come and go from the compound?”
“How’d you get in?” Jason challenged.
“The storm sewer. It was a trap.”
Tim rolled his eyes. “Damian?”
The youngest finally detached himself from Dick’s waist and met Bruce’s gaze. “The garage. My friends can lead us there.” He held out his palm and a rat scurried up his leg and onto his hand.
Bruce nodded. “Good. They have vehicles there?”
Damian nodded as well, mirroring Bruce’s exact mannerisms. “Big ones. Not too noisy.”
Big to a rat was different from big to a human, but Tim decided not to bring that up at the moment.
Dick ran a hand through his messy hair. “All righty then. Stars, here we come! Time to leave the Robin’s Nest for the last time!”
“Don’t call it that,” Jason groaned.
Bruce tried not to think about what he’d do with a pack of half-feral kids once he got them out of Talia’s reach. He couldn’t exactly drop them off at Jim Gordon’s house with Barbara. Nor could he hand them over to CPS and have done with them. These kids were in need of some true rest and recovery from whatever traumas Talia had forced them to live through. Even just from his interactions with Dick, he felt responsible now to make sure that they’d be all right.
Dealing with the matter of their Meta powers was another thing altogether.
Tim led the way through the dim tunnels, his bare feet slapping uncomfortably on the concrete. Didn’t Talia ever provide them with proper footwear? Jason—the one with all the scars—followed close behind, his hands clenched into the proper form for throwing a punch. There was something off about how he carried his right arm, and he winced as if it pained him every time his feet hit the ground.
The girl Cass and Damian with his rats were sandwiched in the middle, and then Bruce.
Dick took up the rear, flying along soundlessly a few inches above the floor.
Alfred would love these kids, he thought suddenly.
The sudden intrusion into his thoughts was enough to make him growl. Tim. He shouldn't underestimate that one.
“No you shouldn’t.” The kid sounded positively smug. “But who's Alfred?”
He formed a thought and sent it sharply back at Tim. “My butler. Now get out of my head.”
“Sorry, can't always help it.” He at least had the decency to sound somewhat abashed.
“Then check in with Barbara again, will you?” Bruce had to say he was impressed at the kid's ability to speak mentally while running through the maze of halls.
“Fine, fine. Grumpypants.”
Bruce chose to ignore that childish jab. He glanced back and caught Dick's eye. The teen seemed concerned, but he quickly hid the look when he realized Bruce was watching. He grinned and gave a thumbs-up.
These children had far too much on their thin shoulders. All of them.
Tim suddenly stopped, and the others scrambled to keep from running into him. He turned slowly and looked back at Bruce, his brow furrowed in what looked like an angry confusion. "You've been lying to us," he accused coldly.
Dick dropped to the ground with a surprised “Huh?" The others stiffened and edged away from him. Jason looked positively murderous.
Tim kept talking. "She's more awake now. When I told her about you, she said she doesn't know anyone named Bruce who would come rescue her. So who are you, really?"
Bruce sighed as he realized the issue. "Tell her Batman is here. She doesn't know my real name."
"You expect us to believe that?" Jason crossed his arms. His right arm seemed to be doing better already. fascinating. "Bat-man? What in the star-crossed universe is that even supposed to mean?"
Dick snorted. "Is that your power? Controlling bats?"
Tim cracked a small smile. "In that case, maybe Damian should be called 'Rat-man.'"
Damian didn’t answer that, surprisingly. He just stared at Bruce as if he’d seen a ghost.
"No, it's not my power." It was all Bruce could do to keep his voice calm and quiet. As aggravating as these youngsters were, they didn't deserve his frustration. "I've been Batman for many years, before I ever came here. Besides, I don't have any Meta powers."
That sobered them up. "No powers?" Dick said. “You’ve been serious about that this whole time? That doesn't seem right."
Tim pushed forward through the others. "His mind is suspiciously blank. Are you blocking me out somehow?"
"Not exactly, but I have had some training in diverting mental attacks. But here, take a look and see that I'm telling the truth." He relaxed his defenses and let his thoughts flow freely so that Tim could read them again. "I have dealt with other Metas before, so I think I’d be able to recognize anything like that. But I haven't noticed any new abilities in myself since Talia did her little experiments."
Tim hummed thoughtfully. "It does seem like he's telling the truth. Either his powers have not manifested yet, or maybe he's just really good at lying. But either way, we need to decide what to do. It's too late to turn back now, right?"
"Right." Dick stood a little straighter, taking on the persona of a leader. The others respected his tone and imitated his posture slightly. Bruce filed that info away for later. "So, Bruce or Batman, or whatever your name is, are you still with us?"
"One hundred percent," Bruce said.
Dick nodded his acceptance. “Tim, have you relayed the info to Barbara?"
"She seemed surprised that Batman is here, but she knows who he is and it's possible that he came to rescue her. She wants to know who sent you, though."
Bruce nodded at that. "Her father, Jim Gordon, lit the Batsignal and asked me for a personal favor."
A moment later, Tim gave the okay. "She believes him."
They all relaxed at that. "All right, let's get her out!" Dick said, bouncing back into the air. "Can she tell us anything?"
Tim closed his eyes. "She says she hears some strange noises outside her cell, but she can't tell what it is. I only sense two guards outside in the hall at the moment, but they’re bored and not thinking about much, so I don’t know what she’s hearing.” He spun around and continued to lead them on quickly.
An alarm suddenly went off and continued to blare loudly at regular intervals.
“Stars fallen!” Jason swore vehemently. “They know something’s up now.”
Bruce didn’t react as strongly, but he felt the pressure of time on them as well. Either the guards had discovered that he and Dick had escaped, or they’d found the broken door that the others had escaped from.
“No going back now,” Dick cried. “Keep running!”
They sprinted after Tim as he ducked down another corridor. This one was dimmer than the others, with fewer lights.
“All right everyone, try to stay quiet!” Tim’s voice warned them, somehow linking them all mentally. “We’re almost there, we should try to take the guards by surprise as much as possible.”
“Why bother?” Jason argued back. “They’re already expecting us. I’ve been waiting to bash some heads long enough. Why keep up this stealth thing anymore?”
Bruce could have given him several reasons, but he held his tongue and waited to see what Dick would say instead.
“Come on, Jase, you can still bash heads, but just do it quietly, okay?”
Jason grumbled but didn’t argue anymore.
Tim slowed his steps and the others followed suit. He held a finger to his lips and inched to the opening to the next corridor. “Here we are. The guards are about five strides inside. I don’t know how they’re armed. I’ll try to stun them while Jason and Dick knock ‘em out. Damian and Cass, you two see about opening the cell. Bruce…”
“Bruce is with me and Jason,” Dick said.
The kids all nodded as one.
Then they moved. If he had blinked, he would have missed it. He’d never seen kids so in tune with each other. Even without another word, they seemed to know exactly how the others would move and react. Bruce was only able to keep up due to his training.
In the hall, the two guards jumped and readied their weapons—which turned out to be handguns. They raised them, but before they could even think about pulling the trigger, their eyes rolled up and they froze.
Tim stopped right in front of them, every muscle tense. He was concentrating so hard that he barely moved. “They’re… fighting me,” he grunted through his teeth. “Better hurry.”
Jason and Dick tackled the two men, scattering their weapons. Jason attacked with brute force, ignoring how his knuckles got a little bloody. Dick flew into the other guard feet first, knocking him clean over. In a moment, both guards were subdued and on the floor.
Bruce was about to help them make sure the guards were unconscious when the hair on the back of his neck suddenly prickled. In the dark hall beyond them, several pairs of yellow eyes glowed. “There’s something else here,” he warned. “And they’re not human!”
Damian ran forward and dodged around Bruce and the others fighting. He crouched down and growled into the darkness.
Something growled back. It sounded about ten times more threatening than the eight-year-old.
Jason and Dick froze and looked up from their downed opponents. “Damian…” Dick began, a thread of fear creeping into his voice.
The creatures lunged forward.
Bruce took a step toward the smallest boy, thinking to shield him, but Damian snapped his teeth and flinched away. He was down on all fours now, growling a challenge to the unknown beasts.
“He’s going feral!” Jason yelled.
And then the beasts were upon them. Bruce reached down and grabbed a knife from the belt of one of the guards. He joined Jason as two massive wolf-like mutant creatures snarled at him. One of them grabbed Jason’s previously injured arm and shook him hard. There was the crack of bone breaking, and then Jason was flung hard into the wall. He slumped down to the floor and didn’t move.
“Jay!” Dick screamed. He glanced back and yelled to the others. “See about that door! We need to get her out now!” Then he dove for Damian.
Bruce used his knife and his fist to keep the largest beast at bay, but two more swarmed around him. “Look out!” he called, hoping against hope that Tim and Cass could hold their own in a fight as well as the older kids.
The canine beasts kept coming out of the shadows. How many were there? Bruce stabbed at the creature’s eyes and it whimpered and backed away blinded, but more rose up to take its place. He wrestled another to the ground and managed to catch a glimpse of Dick approaching Damian ahead.
The smaller boy was completely animalistic now. He moved like a wolf himself, and snarled as Dick approached. Bruce could have sworn his very teeth looked sharper. The other beasts seemed to ignore him, which was good, but he’d somehow lost all sense of his humanity in an instant.
Dick lowered himself into a kneeling position, apparently trying to appear less threatening. But with his attention focused wholly on Damian, he didn’t see the beast stalking right behind him.
Bruce hurled his knife and skewered the creature’s ear into the wall.
This was not going well. The kids were scattered now. Easy prey. These vicious creatures were surely Talia’s pets, trained to keep them occupied while she gathered her men. They had to leave now.
“Cass? Tim?” he called. “How’s that door coming?”
“Could use a little help,” Tim said, back-to-back with Cass as more of the wolves circled them. They’d abandoned trying to get the door open. “My powers don’t work on animals!”
One of the wolves lunged for Tim’s leg. He screamed as teeth pierced his calf. Bruce swooped in and tackled it, hoping to distract it long enough for Tim to pull free. He pounded at the creature’s belly until it released its prey to snarl at him instead.
Tim fell to the floor, more pale than ever. Cass took one look at what had happened and her face twisted in rage.
“No no no,” Tim said. “Cass, it’s all right! Don’t use up your strength on them!”
But Cass didn’t calm down. She raised her hands. A tingling sensation filled the air. Bits of dust and hair began to rise up from the ground and quiver suspended in the air.
Bruce rolled off the wolf creature and crawled to Tim. “What’s happening?” He braced his arm around the trembling kid’s shoulders as he visually inspected the bleeding wound in his leg.
“She’s… losing it. All of them are.” Tim’s teeth were chattering. Probably some mixture of pain, fear, and shock.
“Take a deep breath kid,” Bruce instructed in his Batman voice. “We’re going to get out of this—“
Cass released her pent-up anger in a wave of telekinetic energy that blasted into everything and everyone in the hallway. The wolves seemed to be hit the hardest. They were knocked back ten feet. A few slammed into the walls of the hall and lay still, but the others were enraged by the attack.
Bruce recognized the danger that Cass was getting herself into, and started to stand to help her, but Tim grabbed his arm instead. “Wait, Barbara wants to talk to you!” He scrunched up his eyes in concentration, and mentally knocked at Bruce’s mind. At least he was being polite now.
Bruce lowered his mental shields cautiously. Tim linked him up with another person… Barbara!
“Batman? Is it really you?”
He nodded before he realized that she couldn’t see him. He formed an answer and sent it mentally. “Yes. Let’s get you out of here.”
“No! There’s no time. I’ve seen a bit of what’s going on through Tim’s eyes, and it’s not looking good.”
He didn’t ask how that was possible, just accepted it and moved on. He saw now that Damian was trying to bite Dick’s hand, while more glowing eyes were approaching from further down the hall. Cass was wavering as she blasted more wolves away from her. Jason still hadn’t stirred much. “What are you saying? My whole purpose in coming was to get you out. I’m not leaving without you.” He could sense Tim’s awe at the surety in his tone. A part of him ached to think that these kids had possibly never had an adult on their side.
But Barbara had her own ideas. “Ask Tim—there’s guards on the way. You need to get the others out now if you want a fighting chance!”
His frown deepened. “Not an option. I’m not leaving you here to be tortured.” He broke away from the mental link and yelled, “Cass!”
She didn’t seem to hear him, occupied as she was with fighting her way toward Jason. She fell to one knee, exhaustion catching up with her.
Bruce inspected the door more closely. It was solid metal, with a double key-card lock. He ran to the nearest fallen guard and searched him. No card. He swore softly.
“I heard that,” Tim said in his head. Bruce looked up and locked eyes with the boy. He was leaning against the wall to take the weight off his injured leg. “The guards are almost here,” he said apologetically.
Bruce growled. “Barbara, I’m not leaving you here!”
“You have to! These kids need you! I’ll be all right a little longer, I’m strong. But these kids have been here for years!”
He knew it was true. He just couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her. “Your father will kill me,” he muttered.
“Tell him I love him and that he should trust me. Besides, you’re coming back, right?”
He put his hand on the metal door. What he wouldn’t give for his utility belt right now. He growled. “Stay safe.”
She didn’t answer. There was no time.
From the hall beyond, shouts echoed. The guards had found them.
“Dick, get Damian,” Bruce shouted. He didn’t wait to see if Dick was successful. He plowed through several of the wolves on his way toward Cass and Jason, who were huddled together. Cass looked about to faint. He gently pushed her aside and finally got a good look at Jason.
The injured teen was awake now, but the glazed look on his eyes revealed the amount of pain he was currently in. His breathing was labored, and he winced more with every rise and fall of his chest. Probably some broken ribs in addition to his arm. Probably a concussion as well. It was a wonder he was even awake. Bruce slid an arm under the kid’s shoulders and carefully helped him up. Jason groaned.
Bruce used his foot to knock away another attack from a creature. “We’re getting all of you out of here,” he said to no one in particular. “Stay with me, okay?”
“Shaddup,” Jason mumbled. But he leaned more heavily on Bruce and didn’t speak beyond that.
Cass stuck close to Jason’s other side. She used her powers to clear a path to Dick and Damian.
“Good,” Bruce said. She glanced up at him, puzzled by his praise.
Damian had frozen. He seemed stuck in a daze.
Bruce realized then that Tim had riveted his attention wholly on the youngest and was using his mental ability somehow to restrain the boy. Seeing his opportunity, Dick grabbed him and flew along the open path Cass had cleared. “Thanks guys!” Dick called.
Tim limped toward the group. He dodged around the last conscious wolf and reached them at last. Cass slammed the mutant beast into the floor and it stopped moving.
Bruce took one last look at the metal door that separated them from Barbara. He silently swore he’d be back.
“I’m sorry,” Tim said. “I wish we could get her out.”
The guards’ feet pounded down the corridor. They were out of time. He eyed Dick, who was holding Damian limp in his arms. “Is he still going to be able to lead us to that garage?”
“Uh, I’ll try to rouse him as we go. But we should really head thataway.” Dick pointed in the opposite direction from the sounds of approaching guards.
Bruce heaved Jason forward, who struggled to keep his feet under him even as he gasped from the pain of his broken ribs grating from the movement.
They ran as best they could with half their number injured or out of it. They cleared the first corner and the sound of the alarms grew louder. Dick flew with some effort, carrying Damian as he patted his face to try to wake him up. “Come on, Dami, snap out of it!”
“No!” Damian struggled suddenly in Dick’s arms, apparently panicking.
“Ah, hold still! I’m going to—“
Damian bit Dick’s hand. The older teen was forced to drop him, and he landed on all fours on the ground, growling fiercely.
Bruce stopped, supporting Jason from falling forward. “Damian,” he said gruffly. “We need you to focus now.”
The child looked at him with wild eyes, but the look faded nearly at once. He straightened. “What… where are we?”
Dick landed next to him. “Do you still have your friends with you?”
Damian held out a hand and one of the rats immediately crawled out from his sleeve into his palm. “Yes, but—“ He noticed the alarms, and he winced at the loud sound. “The alarms hurt!”
“Yes, and that’s why we need to get to the garage as quickly as possible. Can you help us do that?”
Damian put his pet rat on the floor and nodded. “We can follow Hercules there.”
“Thank our lucky stars for Hercules,” Jason muttered, but his sarcasm was muted with pain.
Bruce pushed aside the strangeness of following a mythologically-named rat through an underground compound and focused entirely on listening for more sounds of pursuers behind them and checking the path ahead for any sign of traps or ambush.
Jason seemed to be feeling a little better already, which was another thing Bruce put on the “things to think about later” list he was making that seemed to be grow longer by the minute when he was around these kids. At least the second oldest teen was able to move more quickly and lean less on Bruce for balance and support.
Tim, on the other hand, didn’t look quite so good.
“I’m fine, you stupid worrywart,” Tim snapped back. He was falling behind the rest, even as he was helped along by Cass, who looked about ready to faint herself.
Damian was leading the pack now, able to function more or less like a human again. “Help Drake,” he commanded Dick imperiously.
Dick hesitated, then flew to the stragglers. “Come on, little bro,” he said, and lifted Tim into his arms, who only protested weakly. Dick glanced at Cass. “Are you—“
She signed something and shook her head, then poured on a burst of speed to catch up with the rest of the group. Good. Gradually Bruce was realizing that she was probably the most dangerous of all of them.
They reached a set of metal stairs that went up and turned a corner. Damian scooped up his rat and ran up them without a doubt, so they followed.
As soon as they turned the corner and entered the next level, however, Tim cried in their heads, “Stop! Something isn’t right!”
Damian skidded to a stop and pressed himself against the stairwell wall. The rest of them followed suit. Bruce could see the corner of a large hangar-like area beyond. “What is it?” he asked silently.
“There’s some people in there. Not many, but maybe three or four? One’s a delivery person, the others are armed guards for sure. They seem to be arguing.”
Jason let go of Bruce entirely. He rolled his good shoulder. “Cool. I’ll go in and knock ‘em out.”
“Uh, no, let’s think about this first,” Dick responded. “Damian, where is the nearest vehicle that your friends told you about?”
Damian set his rat down again. It scampered away into the hangar. A moment later, it returned, squeaking softly, supposedly to relay what it had learned. “Hercules says there's one warm and rumbling vehicle near the door."
"Probably the delivery truck," Dick said. "Think we can get at it without the guards noticing?"
Damian conferred with his rat for a moment. "If we had a distraction, I think we could do it. Hercules offered to try to get their attention."
Bruce sighed. He would rather not stake his life on the ability of a rat to distract armed guards, but the others seemed to accept this proposal with more faith. "Very well. But be careful. If they see us, let me, Jason, and Cass take care of them while the rest of you find cover."
Damian pouted, but Dick agreed. "All right, let's do it."
Hercules ran back out into the garage. A moment later, several shouts reached them. Bruce ushered the group out, ducking behind pallets of boxed supplies and food. On the far end of the garage, there was a barred garage door which led out into a dark landscape. Through the small windows, it was night outside. Good. That would help them once they got out of the compound. They'd need to find a way to open that door, however.
A straight delivery truck had backed into the bay and was currently idling. The driver and three guards were all occupied with looking at something in the far corner. One of the guards lifted his gun and prowled toward a stack of cardboard boxes warily. Hercules had done his job well.
Bruce spotted the access panel for the garage door on the wall. He gestured toward it. "I'm going to head there and open the door. Tim and Damian, get in the truck cab as quietly as you can. Dick, you cover them and be ready to fly just in case. Jason, you take cover in the back of the truck with Cass. I'm planning to drive us out, but if I don't make it in time, do any of you know how to drive?"
Damian nodded eagerly.
"You're too small, Wolf Pup,” Tim said, rolling his eyes. "Dick can drive. Kinda."
"Talia taught me the basics," Dick admitted. But he seemed uncertain.
"Good. Hopefully it won't come to that." He looked over each of them in turn. They all looked better now that escape was a real possibility. Jason had straightened and was flexing his previously broken arm experimentally. Cass had a brighter gleam in her eyes now, and even Tim had a better color to his cheeks. “Let’s go,” he said.
They all left the relative safety of their hiding place. Bruce resisted the urge to look back to make sure his orders were followed. He went straight for the access panel, keeping his footsteps as light and soundless as possible.
“Sector G, you have a breach!”
The sudden voice that crackled over the intercom system in the ceiling sent ice cold water through his veins. Talia. He should have expected her to have cameras somewhere in the garage bay.
“The subjects are directly in your vicinity. Apprehend them!”
He reached the access panel just as the gunfire began. Something ricocheted close to his hand and he ducked for some cover. He slammed the access panel up. Thankfully the key was still in the lock from letting the truck inside. Talia would certainly be having words with the guards responsible. He punched the button for the automatic opener.
Back by the truck, the others weren’t having quite so much luck. Two of the guards fired on Jason and Cass, who were trying to protect the others. Jason screamed and charged at them, ignoring the danger.
Bruce’s heart skipped a beat. Of all the ridiculous things to do…
The garage door slowly opened. It would have to do. While Jason tackled one of the guards and tried to wrestle his gun away, distracting the other two guards, Bruce leaped up and sprinted back toward the truck. “Get inside!” he yelled to Tim, not caring anymore who heard them. “Go!”
Damian reached the truck first and yanked open the door to the cab. He leaped inside.
Tim, however, tripped several yards away from it, his injured leg unable to keep up with his pace. He fell to the concrete floor with a jaw-clattering impact. Dick skidded past him a ways before he noticed, and it took him a moment to realize the danger the younger boy was in. The remaining two guards gave up shooting at Bruce and Jason and began to run for Tim instead.
Dick jumped in the air and flew back to help Tim. He lifted the kid up and started back toward the truck, but the driver cut him off. He flew higher with Tim, swerving back and forth to avoid the gunfire.
The garage door was only halfway open. They needed to regroup! Bruce poured on his reserves of strength and reached Jason. The teen was slumped over the unconscious guard. There was a little blood, but not enough for normal bullets. What had they shot him with?
Cass gestured wildly from the back of the truck. She wanted him to carry Jason over. He ignored his fears about moving him in this state, and scooped him up. He was surprisingly heavy for such a young person. And as soon as he lifted him to his chest, he could feel that every single muscle in his body was rigid with pain. He now had a guess what those guards were shooting—some kind of pain drug. He had no idea how many times Jason had been hit, but a normal person probably would have surely passed out by now. Jason was wide awake, his jaw clenched as he struggled to breathe.
He gently placed him inside the truck bed. “Take care of him,” he said to Cass.
She nodded and signed something to him that he didn’t understand.
More gunfire. Dick was in trouble. He left Jason behind and hurried to help.
Before he could reach the two guards, Talia spoke up on the intercom again. “You think you can fly away from me, little bird? How foolish. Even your parents couldn’t do that and they were stronger than you. Your powers will fail you just as they failed them. How far do you want to fall?”
To his horror, he saw Dick freeze in mid-air, allowing a clear shot.
Bruce tackled the nearest guard from behind. The gun slid away from them. Then he launched toward the other just as the gun went off.
Dick and Tim fell. Tim screamed, but Dick was eerily silent as he dropped. Bruce surged forward, intending to break their fall. But a couple yards from the ground, they stopped. They floated in mid air, eyes wide.
Cass stood a short distance behind him, her arms shaking as she concentrated on keeping the boys aloft. Her legs trembled violently, and she fell to her knees. Dick and Tim dropped the rest of the way. Tim fell into a practiced roll, but Bruce caught Dick by the arms so that he wouldn’t collapse. “Get in the van,” he instructed gently, emphasizing his words with a small shake.
Dick didn’t respond.
Tim groaned from the floor. Then he glared at Dick and sent a sharp mental jab that even Bruce felt. “Stupid airhead! Get with the game! Now’s not the time for you to deal with your side effect, Dickbrain!”
Dick shook himself awake. “Y-yeah…” But he was still shaking. “Think they got me…”
Bruce found a small patch of blood on his shoulder. Sure enough, it was another of the small pellets that had taken out Jason. “How many times were you hit?”
But Dick just shrugged, his head lolling to the side a bit.
Tim struggled to his feet. “Cass, you good?”
She nodded and managed to rise stiffly as well. She disappeared around the back of the truck. A moment later, they heard the back closing.
“I guess the rest of us are squeezing in the cab,” Tim said wearily. “Dick, come on.” He pulled on his arm, helping Bruce keep the older boy balanced, even despite his own injured leg.
The garage door was three quarters of the way open now. Bruce ushered Tim and Dick into the cab with Damian. He was too tired to be surprised when Hercules the rat scurried up his leg and joined them, to Damian’s obvious relief.
He was just reaching up to pull himself into the driver’s seat when a group of more guards poured into the garage bay and began firing at will. Something stung in the back of his left arm. And then another. He leaped inside and slammed the door shut. He put the truck in gear and revved the engine, even before the garage door was completely open. It scraped the top of the truck with a horrific screeching sound but the engine was strong enough to barrel through, ripping the bottom of the metal door clean off.
He floored it, knowing that they had to get closer to civilization before they were safe. He’d parked the Batmobile a few miles out. If they could get to that—
He winced. The pain drug was starting to affect his left arm. Great. “One of you,” he said gruffly. “I need a tourniquet. Any cloth you can spare?”
Tim hesitated, then began tearing a strip from his shirt. “Will this do?”
Bruce nodded. “Tie it on my left arm, as tight as you can make it.” He would have asked Dick, but the teen was already shaking from his own pain. Tim could do it.
A glance in the mirrors told him that the pursuit had begun. Several of Talia’s brutes in off-road vehicles and SUVs roared out of the hidden garage bay after them.
Tim awkwardly reached across his chest to make the tourniquet where Bruce indicated on his upper left arm, above where the pain bullet had pierced his skin.
The dirt road joined up with a larger one ahead. “Hold on,” he grunted to Tim, pushing him back to his seat before he could finish the tourniquet. “This turn may be rough. Can you warn Cass?”
Tim nodded, his eyes wide.
Bruce gritted his teeth and threw the wheel to the side, praying he’d properly judged how fast he could take the turn without flipping the vehicle. The truck’s engine roared, and he felt two wheels threaten to lift off the ground. But then he straightened it out, and the truck kicked up a dark cloud of dust as it accelerated down the road. He hoped Cass and Jason were okay in the back.
“They’re gaining on us,” Damian said, eyeing the mirror on the passenger side. Dick was slumped over against his shoulder.
Bruce reached his throbbing left arm out to Tim to finish the tourniquet. The kid did it quietly and efficiently, but his face was pale with fear. And he didn’t blame him for worrying. They were still quite a way out from the Batmobile. Judging by how quickly the headlights of Talia’s SUVs were growing in size in the mirrors, the guards would be on them before they reached safety. What to do?
“Cass, no!” Tim suddenly shouted.
“What’s she doing?” Damian asked.
“She’s opening the back of the truck! They’ll shoot her!”
Sure enough, he heard the rattle of the truck’s back gate opening. Gunfire rained into the back of the cargo area. He glanced in the mirror again. He couldn’t see Cass of course, but what he did see made him nearly pull his foot off the gas in shock.
One of the SUVs had lifted into the air, spinning around like an astronaut in zero gravity.
Damian and Tim were just as shocked as he was. Damian muttered something that sounded Arabic.
The floating vehicle suddenly slammed back to the ground, upside down on top of another pursuing SUV. The two made a horrific metallic grinding sound, and spun out of control into another of the fleet. The sudden pileup made the remainder of the vehicles slow and swerve to avoid being crushed. He saw at least one ATV driver leap off his ride and roll to safety in the ditch.
As bizarre and terrifying as Cass’s handwork was, he wasn’t about to let this opportunity go to waste. He flattened his foot on the gas. Time to get the hell out of there.
With the pain drug a ticking time bomb in his arm, with no Barbara, at least two unconscious kids in the bullet-ridden truck, another seriously injured, and all of them likely deeply traumatized, he knew one fact without a doubt: Alfred was going to kill him.
There were so many stars.
Damian couldn’t help but stare in awe at the pinpricks of silver light that shone down from the wide sky. He’d forgotten them. He hadn’t seen them in so long, the sight made his heart ache.
Squeezed between him and Grayson, Drake was just as enraptured. Even as his eyelids grew heavy with exhaustion, he refused to close them and go to sleep. Idiot.
He tore his gaze away from the stars to glance over at the mysterious man who sat behind the wheel of the truck, eyes riveted on the dark highway.
Damian had to admit, the man was pretty impressive.
Not only had he managed to mobilize them enough to escape Talia’s assassins-turned-prison guards, but this stranger had gone up against multiple armed men with his bare hands to keep them all relatively safe. After Cass’s little showdown with the vehicles, Bruce had driven straight to a turnout a mile out from a small town. Hidden in the undergrowth of the trees was a sleek black car that responded to his voice command to open up a winglike door. He punched in a few commands, grabbed a first aid kit and a utility belt of some sort, and then closed it up again. The car automatically started as if someone were driving it. Bruce then resumed his position in the truck behind the wheel and pulled out. The sleek black car followed, and escorted them to a much busier road.
As soon as they began to see other cars, ordinary cars, not high-tech all-terrain vehicles, he finally began to breathe more easily. They all did.
Damian made sure that Drake wasn’t listening to his thoughts, then mulled over the one thing that had been bothering him ever since he heard it.
The man—Bruce—had called himself Batman.
Batman. His mother had told him many things about the Dark Knight before she…changed. If those things she said were true, then…
“Go to sleep, you two,” Bruce said, not even removing his attention from the road for a second. “It’s a long drive before we arrive.”
“Tt.” He folded his arms. “I don’t trust you yet. Drake can sleep. I’m keeping watch.”
At that, Bruce actually looked over, the hint of a smile on his face. “Can’t Hercules do that for you?”
Upon hearing his name, Hercules squirmed out of Damian’s pocket and onto his lap.
Food? The rodent nosed about his hand, searching for crumbs. Snack time? Big man have food?
He stroked the soft fur on his head. “Hercules is too easily bribed,” he said.
After a while, Tim finally closed his eyes and fell asleep to the rumble of the road noise.
Damian finally swallowed his weakness and raised his chin. “Are you really Batman?”
Bruce breathed in deeply through his nose and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He looked at Damian more closely, searching his face for something. His own expression was tense, which reminded him, hadn’t he been shot with the pain drug too? The tourniquet couldn’t be that effective.
He pulled his sweatshirt hood over his face so the man would stop looking at him like that. He’d not ever been much of a shy person, but right now he wished he hadn’t spoken up. Something about Bruce’s deep blue eyes pierced right through him.
“He is one of the world’s greatest detectives,” his mother had once claimed, all those years ago. “Many people forget about that. It is nearly impossible to hide things from him for long. Your existence is possibly the one exception.”
“Yes,” Bruce said at last. “The others didn’t show any sign that they recognized the name. But you’ve heard of me. Why?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said quickly. “Forget I said anything.”
“Hmm.” Bruce fell silent, but Damian got the sense that he most certainly would not forget about it.
He swore to himself, however, that he would not reveal anything more about his heritage until he could assess what kind of man this Batman really was beneath the cowl.
What do you think, Hercules? He asked, looking into his small friend’s beady eyes.
The rat curled up in his palm and blinked at him. If he hurts you I shall bite him.
Damian smirked. Me too.
Barbara didn’t know how long she lay on the hard floor of her cell after Batman had gone. The ear-piercing alarms blared for a good while longer. Her ears kept ringing even after someone finally shut them off. She hoped that meant Batman had escaped with Tim and the others. Those kids had been through so much. She was pretty sure she didn’t even know half of it, but what she’d gleaned from their brief conversations and Tim’s comments in general had been disturbing beyond belief. They had to have gotten out. They had to.
She blinked in the darkness. One of Damian’s rats scavenged around the floor aimlessly. “Sorry,” she croaked, her voice still raw from screaming during the first round of experiments. “Looks like we both got left behind.”
That thought didn’t bother her as much as she supposed it should. She’d told Batman to go, and he had. It was her choice.
Her father would be distraught, but there wasn’t really anything she could do about that now. She just had to take care of herself until help arrived… or find a way out on her own.
She took a deep breath and pushed herself to her hands and knees. Every muscle ached from the movement. What on earth had they done to her?
After Talia’s sadistic little monologue, she’d been strapped into a restraining device that kept her arms and legs stretched out with metal cuffs. A gag covered her mouth, but did little to hold back the screams of pain. She shuddered, suddenly sucked back into her memory of that awful place…
“Which formula are we using on this subject?” one of the lesser scientists asked. “The last one we used seemed stable enough at first.”
“Until the subject went mad and had to be put down,” Talia answered coolly.
Barbara swallowed and tried fruitlessly to break free.
“Which shall it be, then? Surely not the new one, right? The early tests we got using the blood sample were positive, but the testing hasn’t been completed yet.”
Talia stepped up to Barbara and inspected her face. “Hm. We don’t have the luxury to finish the testing first. We already know the process is sound. Judging by the diluted effect the DNA had on Damian’s original results, the new formula has a high chance of successfully bonding her Meta gene. That is, if she survives the process. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
The scientist agreed. “Very well. We will use the newest formula on her as our first official beta test. Beginning activation phase now.”
Another metal arm descended from the ceiling and interlocked with the device that held her, creating a sort of industrial cage around her body. Her heart began to pound faster as she realized there was no escaping this.
The scientist, a middle-aged man with a beard, approached her left arm with a syringe of clear liquid. He lifted her sleeve and jabbed the needle into her shoulder. Then he repeated the process on her right arm as well.
No, this wasn’t happening!
After both syringes were emptied, the man stepped back and nodded to Talia, who was watching the proceedings with her arms folded. “Subject is prepped for gene activation current. Standby.”
Moments later, one of the scientists flipped a series of switches on the panels behind Talia. The metal cuffs on her wrists clamped tighter and jabbed something sharp into her skin at the contact points.
Then the pain started…
Barbara jolted out of the memory, gasping. She gingerly rubbed the scabs on her wrists where the cuffs had pierced her skin. Had all of the others gone through this awful experiment? She flexed her hand, wincing at the soreness in her tendons. “Tim?” she asked quietly, to see if he was still in range.
She heaved a sigh. Hopefully that meant he was far from her, somewhere safe with Batman.
She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, too tired and sore to think anymore. So far, she didn’t seem to have developed any obvious Meta powers, but then again, she was too exhausted to try anything crazy. Later. She’d probably have plenty of time for that after she regained her strength.
Voices in the hall outside her cell interrupted her half-asleep thoughts. Shouts. Something rattled right outside her door. It opened, letting the utility lights outside stream into her pained eyes.
“Get the sedative just in case,” one of the men warned. “It’s early, but the subject’s powers could be developing.”
If she wasn’t so bone-tired she would have laughed. A sedative, hm? What did they think she was going to do, turn into a man-eating monster?
They slapped cuffs on her and dragged her toward the door. She struggled weakly, but it was useless.
“Come quietly,” her current captor growled. He shook her briefly. “We’re relocating, and you’re not going to give us any trouble, you hear?”
Oh. That made sense. Batman knew this base existed now. Talia and her crew had to abandon it before the police and probably the FBI descended on them in force.
But if they were taking her away from here… how would Batman know how to find her?
Dick shifted. A bright light was shining through his eyelids, making it hard for him to keep sleeping. He was hunched up against some kind of seat cushion, comfortably sandwiched between two warm bodies. Judging from their size and how they were snuggled against his sides, they were probably Damian and Tim, fast asleep.
Something was rumbling noisily around and under them. And that light was getting brighter. He winced.
“Waking up?” came a deep voice. “We’ll be arriving in Gotham very soon. Looks like we’ll beat the morning rush hour traffic.”
He struggled to open his eyes. The light was so bright that he had to squint in order to see anything. It was like looking into the sun—
He sat up straight, disturbing Tim and Damian. “It’s the sun!” he croaked in awe, his vocal cords not fully awake yet. He huffed a laugh and rubbed his face, still not able to open his eyes more than slits.
Bruce, seated behind the wheel of the truck, glanced over at him. “Yes. Haven’t you seen it before?” There was a hint of concern in his voice.
The golden light made tears come to his eyes, but he forced them to stay open. He wanted to drink in every drop of this wonderful sight. “A long time ago,” he said softly. “Not for many years.”
“Dick,” Bruce said.
Dick finally tore his gaze away from the rising sun on the horizon straight ahead and glanced over toward the man. “Yeah?”
“How long have you been living in that compound?”
“That depends,” he admitted. “I’m not sure what year it is now. But I was taken by Talia when I was nine.” He fell silent then, not wanting to go into the details. His parents’ faces flashed before his eyes, and he furiously blinked them away, ignoring the tears that finally spilled over. He wiped his face with his palm.
Bruce softened. “Damian and Tim had a similar reaction to the stars last night. I thought Damian would never stop staring at them.”
“Aw, I missed the stars?”
“You’re looking at one of them.”
He laughed. “I suppose so.” He wrapped his arms around his snoozing brothers on either side. Then he stiffened, a sudden panic overtaking him as his memory of their escape caught up to him. “Cass and Jason! They were fighting, Jason was hurt bad-“
“They’re in the back,” Bruce said, his voice calm. “I checked on them a few hours ago. Cass is fine, just extremely tired. Jason was drugged with the same thing you were hit with, only he got a larger dose. Mind telling me about that?”
“It’s Talia’s way of controlling us,” he said. “A pain stimulant that her scientists developed in the lab. We’re too valuable to kill unless we go mindless. They didn’t want to risk normal bullets that could damage us. So they found a solution.” He practically spat out the last word.
“Even for Jason’s intense healing factor,” Bruce mused.
Yikes, the guy was quick in the deduction department. “Yeah, after they realized that Jase would heal from virtually any wound within less than an hour, no matter how life-threatening, they crafted the drug to be slow-acting over the period of hours. It’s exponential, too. If he got hit with multiple capsules, he may be out of commission for a day or two.” He rubbed the spot between his eyebrows.
Dick glanced up. Bruce frowned at the road ahead, his grip tightening on the steering wheel. Great, he probably shouldn’t have mentioned so much. It just felt so good to talk to someone older that wasn’t trying to beat him into a human weapon. It felt good to not have to be the only one everyone turned to for protection and rescue and comfort for once.
“How the hell would they know-“
“Look, some things are not my place to tell.”
“…Right,” Bruce said through his teeth.
A tense silence fell between them.
Dick turned back to gaze at the rising sun, his eyes having adjusted more now to the unfamiliar sight. He wondered what would happen to them now. Sure, Bruce had helped them break out, but he’d given them no indication that he’d help them beyond that. Would he turn them over to the authorities?
He had to think of a way to keep them together, as well as how to hide their abilities. The last thing he wanted was for them to leave Talia’s grip only to get torn apart by curious scientists on this side of the walls.
“Where are you taking us?” he asked at last. “You could have dropped us off anywhere. Why Gotham City?”
“It’s where I live,” Bruce said. “I’m taking you to my home to recover for now. I understand each of you has… special needs that can’t be met by something like ordinary foster care or a group home. But I’ll find something.”
Huh. He hadn't exactly expected such sincerity from the guy. He really meant to help them. Unless this was all a big trick. He couldn't rule out that possibility, not after everything that Talia had put them through. This could all just be another stupid test. They'd never even left those tunnels, it wasn't real, he was hallucinating—
"Hey, you all right?" Bruce's voice cut into his frantic thoughts. "Breathe, okay?"
He winced, and forced his breathing to steady. Bruce had seen him almost lose it. Again. How many times would he have to shake him out of it?
Tim stirred awake next to him. His familiar presence entered his mind with soothing thoughts. “At least we’re together,” he said silently, keeping Bruce out of the conversation. “That’s all that really matters, right?”
Tim was right. As long as they could stay together, he shouldn’t worry about the rest. “Yeah,” he replied aloud, not caring that Bruce was still listening. “We’ve got each other.”
At dawn, Alfred Pennyworth opened the door to the first guest room on the manor’s second story and frowned. He wiped a finger on the mahogany dresser top. Despite his periodic cleaning, a thin layer of dust had settled over all the furniture surfaces. Good thing he’d brought his best cleaning supplies.
As he sprayed the dresser and bedside table with furniture polish and wiped them down with clean rags, he mulled over the cryptic message he’d received from Master Bruce in the wee hours of the morning.
“Please prep five guest rooms, preferably next to each other. Oh, and set up the medbay as well, just in case. We will be having some young company for a little while. I’ll explain more when we arrive.”
Young company. Those words were surprising from Master Bruce’s mouth. If he’d said one of his female companions would be staying over, or if he’d allowed party-goers to crash after a long charity ball at the manor, this might have been overlooked. But he’d implied they were likely going to enter via the cave. So whoever these people were, they knew he was Batman. The whole thing was rather mysterious.
He fluffed the pillows and arranged freshly laundered sheets on the queen-sized bed. How young were these unexpected guests to be? Homeless college students? If so, why not set them up in low-cost housing closer to one of the campuses? Or were they lost children that needed to find their parents? In that case, why bring them here, risking his secret identity? Couldn’t the police handle that?
Alfred finished making the bed and marched over to the tall windows on one wall. He opened them wide and let the brisk morning air in to freshen up the stuffy corners of the room. Then he moved on to the next room in the hall to do the same routine.
The fact that the medical bay may be needed was an additional concern. Who was injured? He had a hunch that Bruce would need some patching up after having disappeared without contact for so long. But were any of his “young company” injured as well?
He shook his head. All these questions would be answered in due time. For now, he had another three rooms to clean and air before the mysterious guests arrived.
Tim sensed the tension in everyone as the truck skirted downtown Gotham City.
Cass was awake, though unhappy about being cooped up in the back of the truck where she couldn’t see anything, so he did his best to let her “see” through his eyes now and then. He marveled along with her at the distant skyscrapers and railway systems of the city across the bay, reflecting the hazy morning sunlight in golden stripes along each stone and glass surface. Even from the mainland freeway, he could tell that Gotham was huge. It was unlike anything they’d ever experienced during their time with Talia.
Bruce hardly paid it any attention, but Tim sensed that he was carefully observing each of their reactions.
Dick and Damian were also wide awake now, both watching the cityscape slide past outside the window. Damian kept whispering things to Dick, probably questions about what they were seeing.
Jason was still out of it. He’d slipped into a delirious half-asleep state, and any time Tim poked at his thoughts, he was met by a raging anguish and pain, so he let him be for now.
The truck took an exit and wound up a few hills on a two-lane road. They passed some massive houses with shining windows, and huge brick gates with ornate filigree signs declaring the names of the residents who owned the estate. Was this Bruce’s neighborhood? Dang.
Near the top of the hill, the houses spread out, and a large fence and hedges hid the other side from sight. They took one last turn, and then they were there. Bruce pulled up to the biggest gate he’d seen yet, framed by lanterns on either side, and a greenish copper archway that spelled out “Wayne Manor.”
Tim automatically linked up the others mentally, excluding Bruce, so they could freak out together.
“This is it?” Dick asked. His mouth was hanging open. “He lives here?”
A moment later, the gate opened. Apparently someone was watching for them through the security cameras and had opened it from inside. The truck entered the grounds, revealing the front of a massive mansion behind the trees and hedges.
“Big,” Cass said simply.
“My grandfather’s fortress is bigger,” Damian said, but even he seemed impressed.
As the truck turned around the driveway loop, Tim saw that the sleek black car was no longer behind them. “Hey, where’d that other car go?” he asked.
Bruce glanced at him. “It went directly to the Batcave entrance. I would have taken you in that way, but the truck is out of fuel, and that route is longer.”
Tim blinked. The fuel gauge was indeed on empty. “And you didn’t say anything?”
Bruce shrugged. “We made it, didn’t we? Besides, last I heard, none of you can make diesel fuel magically appear. Unless that’s another hidden power of yours?” He parked in the front of the manor and shut the engine off. “Wait here for a moment while I let Alfred know what’s going on.” He exited the truck and went in the front door of the house.
Tim almost tried to follow along and read his thoughts, but Bruce had already proven that he could sometimes recognize when his thoughts were being touched - same as Talia.
“Do you think he’ll really help us?” Tim asked Dick. “You’ve spent the most time with him out of all of us. What are your thoughts on who he is and what he’s like?”
“He’s definitely hiding a lot,” Dick admitted. “But he seems genuine to me. He’s taking on an awful lot to let us all stay with him in his house. His big, fancy house…”
“Don’t be childish,” Damian said, sounding very childish himself. “It’s just a house. He’s probably quite wealthy. That black car he had was custom made, he’s apparently got the biggest house in this whole city, and he’s also got a servant or butler who opened the gate for us. He’s used to this life.”
Tim rolled his eyes. “I don’t need the lecture, I know what wealth is.”
“Come on, guys, don’t bicker,” Dick said. “He’s coming back out.”
Sure enough, Bruce was trotting back toward the truck. The door of the house stayed open behind him, revealing a proper man standing straight with an unreadable expression on his face. Yeah, that sure looked like a butler, if he remembered anything from his life before Talia…
Bruce opened the door of the truck. “Dick, how’s your pain level at the moment? Can you help me with Jason?”
Dick pushed Damian off his lap. “I can help.”
Tim followed the others out of the truck and grimaced as he stretched and cracked his neck. They’d been driving for hours. He guessed he wasn’t the only one who had to go to the bathroom, either. But he held his tongue to see how Jason fared.
Bruce opened the back of the truck. Cass leaped out and snagged Dick in a massive hug, then shifted to Tim.
“Hey Cass,” he said carefully, patting her back. “We’re here.”
She nodded and rubbed her face into his shoulder. “Home.”
He didn’t have the heart to correct her. She’d find out soon enough that this couldn’t be their home. ** After all, it was only a matter of time before Bruce showed his true colors and either abandoned them or turned into a monster like Talia and abused them.
Bruce could tell Jason was out of it but still in an incredible amount of pain. “Dick, I’m going to lift him down. You stay there.” He jumped into the truck and crouched next to the teen. “Hey Jason, it’s Bruce. I’m going to move you in a moment, okay?” He waited but got no response. He carefully put his arms under him and hefted, remembering how heavy he’d been earlier.
Besides, his own pain was still throbbing dully in his arm. The tourniquet had helped, but it was off now, and the pain still spread throughout his body. He’d deal with that later, once he was sure these kids were all taken care of.
Jason stirred at the movement, and made a small groan.
“It’s all right,” Bruce said. “Dick’s here.” He transitioned to the truck’s loading gate and hit the switch for the automated lift. It gradually and noisily descended to ground level, where Dick immediately rushed in to help.
“Jason, can you hear me? Oh Stars, he’s not looking good.”
“Stand aside, young man, young lady,” Alfred’s voice said, as he brushed past Tim and Cass. “Let me have a look at him.” He was holding a stretcher and a medkit. “Is he breathing?”
“Yes,” Bruce said, though it did look like every breath pained him. “It’s some kind of unknown pain drug. Can we risk any type of painkiller?”
Alfred laid the stretcher out. “Place him here, please. We will take a closer look inside. I’ve set up one of the bedrooms with medical supplies. I guessed it would be more comfortable there.”
Bruce nodded in relief, and with Dick’s help, gently positioned Jason on the stretcher. He went to take one end, but Alfred stopped him. “I believe I can handle this with this young man here,” he put a hand on Dick’s shoulder. “You should see to our younger guests. They look nearly dead on their feet.”
Damian stumbled around the corner of the truck, proving Alfred’s point.
“You’re right,” he conceded. “I’ll check in with you once they’ve been seen to.”
Dick and Alfred carefully carried Jason into the house. Damian tried to follow but Dick gave him a firm look and he faltered.
Cass tugged on Bruce’s sleeve. He looked down and met her worried eyes. She gestured at Tim, who was swaying unsteadily as he leaned against the truck. He looked more pale than usual, and sweat had beaded up on his forehead.
“Tim, is it your leg wound?” Now that the most serious concern (Jason) was being taken care of, Bruce could focus once more on the other needs of the group. Tim’s leg had been bitten back in the fight with those monsters, he hadn’t forgotten. He’d cleaned it briefly after he’d recovered the medkit from the Batmobile, but it needed more attention as soon as possible. “We should get that disinfected again. Alfred may want to do stitches.”
Tim turned almost green. “No needles,” he said hoarsely.
Ah. Of course these kids would have developed phobias after being experimented on and who knew what else. “No stitches, then,” he said, keeping his voice calm. “But we should clean you up at least. All of you,” he added, looking at Cass and Damian. “I’ll show you the guest rooms.”
Cass ran her hand along the carved moulding on the grand staircase, letting her fingertips wander over every curlicue and leaf pattern. She was impressed not only by the house, which was massive, but also by the way Bruce and his Alfred ushered them right in like kings and queens. Or at least, how she imagined kings and queens might be treated, from Dick’s bedtime stories.
“You okay?” Tim asked silently from his position a few steps above her. He leaned down to catch his breath.
“You,” she insisted, then lost the words. Frustrated, she ran up the steps between them and tugged on his shoulder. He turned, and she signed, Stop worrying. You have lines on your face. Bad Tim.
He smiled, but the creases in his forehead didn’t go away. “I’m worried about Jason. Dick as well. He got hit with the pain drug too.”
She rolled her eyes and signed simply, Strong. Live. Stop worrying, mushbrain.
He made his hands into a sloppy heart in answer.
“I hope you’ll teach me how to do that.”
They both looked up, surprised by the spoken words. Bruce was standing on the stair landing, watching their silent conversation with a strange look on his face. Good head there, she signed without thinking. But his heart is best.
“How do you know?” Tim asked.
She smiled at him and walked up the stairs to where Damian was waiting impatiently next to Bruce.
She rubbed her hands together and raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, I’ll show you where you can all wash up. Alfred will bring something to eat after Jason is tended to. And then I think bed would be a good idea.”
Cass nodded and turned back to Tim. He’d stopped halfway up the stairs and was swaying a bit as he balanced on his good leg. She rushed back down to catch him before he tumbled backwards down the stairs. She wrapped her arm under his arms and helped him up the rest of the stairs. He was moving more slowly every second. Also, he seemed too warm now, even through the intense shivering. Not good. “Sick,” she whispered, but Bruce was too far ahead, speaking to Damian as they walked down the hall.
“‘Mallright,” Tim mumbled, but he was barely moving his feet now. She couldn’t carry him, so she stopped in the middle of the hall. “Just tired.”
She humphed and shook her hair out of her face in frustration. There was an ornate padded bench a few yards away. She could get him there and then run after Bruce and Damian. She took a deep breath to summon her last vestiges of strength. She lifted Tim up an inch or so using her powers.
He started to protest, but she dragged him forward. They reached the bench, and he collapsed onto it. His eyes were glassy now, and sweat beaded around his temples.
“Stay,” she said firmly, poking him in the chest. He just slumped over onto his side and closed his eyes.
She ran after Bruce and Damian, who’d finally realized they weren’t right behind them. Bruce saw the fear she didn’t know how to express.
The words escaped her. She gestured back at Tim on the bench and signed frantically.
Damian watched her, then spoke up. “She’s saying he’s ill,” he translated. “Infection from that stupid wound of his, most likely.”
Bruce patted her shoulder. “It’s all right, Cass. He’ll be okay.”
How could he know? He seemed so certain, so calm, as he went back to check on Tim.
The funny thing was that she believed him.
Once Jason was settled, and his vitals had been checked and deemed stable, Alfred shooed Dick out of the bedroom to go get cleaned up and settled in his own room before he looked him over for injuries later. Alone in the room with Jason now, Alfred walked over to the window to close the curtains and block some of the intense morning light. He’d seen how Dick shied away from it as if it hurt his vision. Likely a migraine. Jason may have one too, when he woke up.
Dick, as he’d introduced himself, had briefly filled him in on the effects of the mysterious pain drug that had taken Jason down in their escape from none other than Talia al Ghul. Dick had been taken down by a single dose of that drug. Jason had been hit multiple times. It would take some time for his body to sweat out the drug.
He lifted the sheet and coverlet folded at the foot of the bed and gently laid it over Jason’s body, pausing at the sight of too many pale scars that streaked the skin visible on his arms and legs. Some looked shallow and close together on his hands and forearms, as if someone had repeatedly sliced those marks with a sharp blade. There were tiny puncture scars as well. An uneasy feeling crept over him as he regarded those old wounds. They weren’t as bad as some of the scars on his neck and face, but something about them seemed ominous. Possibly self-inflicted?
He finished laying out the covers and tucked them loosely around the boy. Questions for another day, perhaps. For now, he would focus on the physical well-being of each of his guests and hope that their mental well-being would be tended to as needed. He would, however, need to discuss things with Bruce as soon as possible.
He set up a heart-rate monitor just in case, and quietly left the room.
Next was Timothy, the child with the bite mark in his leg. Bruce quietly told him about the mutant wolf-creatures that had done this horrible wound, and whispered to him not to insist on stitches as the boy was terrified of needles.
The other two—the one girl in the group and a younger boy—stayed right there the whole time, hovering to make sure no harm came to their friend. He was sure to move slowly and clearly show his gloved hands so that they could see what he was doing as he cleaned the wound and surrounding area with warm soapy water and then applied wound cream to help with the infection. He bandaged with sterile dressings and then covered it to protect it further.
“There you are,” he said at last.
The boy blinked at him feverishly. “I’m not gonna turn into a werewolf on top of all this, am I? ‘Cause I think I’m weird enough for this family already.”
That made Alfred pause for the second time that morning. Family. That word had not been spoken in this house in years. He smiled. “You’re going to be fine,” he assured Tim, for his sake and for the others. “But I will need you to take some medication to eradicate that nasty infection. Can you do that for me?”
Tim looked to the other two and seemed to communicate something to them silently.
They even seemed to be having a conversation, because the younger boy’s scowl deepened and the girl shook her head, smiling.
Alfred looked to Bruce, who gave him the I’ll explain later look. He quirked an eyebrow and looked back at Timothy. “While you think about it, I’ll bring up some breakfast shortly.”
All three children locked on him at that.
“Food…?” the youngest boy trailed off. “I’m a vegetarian. Mostly.”
“When he’s not biting your leg off,” Tim said. “Damian has more, ahem, feral tastes that come and go.”
The youngest—Damian, then—made a growling sound. “If you’re asking for a matched set I can oblige.”
Bruce stepped between the two. “Enough of that. Let Tim rest. You two go get washed up for breakfast.”
Damian glared at him but skulked out into the hall, followed by the silent girl.
“Will you be okay alone for a bit?” Bruce asked gruffly. “I need to speak to Alfred.”
“‘Kay,” Tim said. Then he looked right at Alfred with a serious face. “Make sure he lets you take a look at him, too. He was shot in the arm, you know.”
Alfred picked up his medkit and narrowed his eyes at Master Bruce, who wouldn’t quite meet his gaze. “Thank you, Timothy. I shall take it from here.”
Out in the hall, he finally spoke up. “I daresay you have some explaining to do. I’ve treated the most urgent concerns. Now it’s your turn.” He ushered Bruce into his own bedroom and shut the door.
“I’m sorry, Alfred.”
An apology? That was rare. “For what? To my knowledge, it appears you simply found these children and decided to take them in. That is a noble action, regardless of anything you might choose to harbor guilt over.”
Bruce sat on the chest at the foot of his bed. Now that he was away from the children, he let his weakness show a little. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He rubbed his left shoulder as if it pained him. “Those kids are metahuman.”
That did put a different spin on things. “Any of them dangerous? Fire powers or the like?”
Bruce shrugged, then winced. “No fire, but all of them could be dangerous. I didn’t know what else to do with them.”
“The boy with the scars,” Alfred said softly. “Jason. I saw his arms. He may need to be watched around sharp objects.”
Bruce sighed. “I was afraid of that. He has an intense healing factor, but it’s resulted in a twisted self-loathing, it seems. All of them have psychological hurts from what Talia did to them. I’m in way over my head here.”
Alfred gestured for Bruce to remove his shirt so he could inspect his wound. “If you’ll allow me to say so, you most certainly aren’t alone in this. We’ll contact Dr. Thompkins tomorrow, and she can refer us to others who may help.” He tsked as he saw the place where Bruce had been hit… by two pain bullets, as it appeared.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea yet,” Bruce said slowly. “Not until they can adjust to a more normal lifestyle and I’m certain they can hide their powers to some degree.”
After making sure that the pain capsules were removed, he cleaned and bandaged Bruce’s arm. “All I’m saying is that you may not have the luxury of waiting. These young people need help now. Are you able to give it to them?”
Dick set down his fork and sighed happily. He’d never had such delicious food, at least that he could remember. Alfred had fed them three times today, and each meal was more wonderful than the previous. The man claimed he was starting them with small amounts of basic, easy-to-digest foods because he wasn’t sure what their diets could handle after the mysterious slop Talia had raised them on, but somehow he’d made even simple rice and chicken taste more magical than it had any right to be.
Based on how clean their plates were, Damian and Cass seemed to agree, though Damian had stuck to the carrots and broccoli instead of the chicken. Tim was still confined to bed for his meals, though Alfred told them he’d likely be allowed on his feet very soon. Jason hadn’t woken up yet.
“Thank you, Mr. Alfred,” Dick said when the butler/cook/whatever he was came back to pick up their dishes. “This was a dinner fit for a king, truly.”
“You are very welcome, my boy. It is good to cook for an appreciative audience.”
Damian frowned. “Does Bruce not appreciate it?”
Dick raised an eyebrow. He’d noticed that Damian was especially keen on airing out Bruce’s faults and foibles all day. He’d been subtle for the most part, but there was definitely something on the kid’s mind. He made a note to talk to him later.
“He does, but he is not nearly as exuberant in his appreciation. I presume he’s more used to it, that’s all.”
“Where is Bruce, anyway?” Dick asked, suddenly curious. “I haven’t seen him for an hour or so.”
“Master Bruce has some important business to attend to. He shall return later this evening, after you all are in bed, I should hope.”
Damian steepled his hands over the table and Dick hid a grin. He always looked so cute when he did that. “It’s Batman work, isn’t it?”
Alfred’s lip twitched. “Ah, that is astute of you. Indeed, Batman has been absent for several nights now. He must take care of things in the city that cannot wait.”
Damian’s scowl was interrupted but a wide yawn.
“All right, Kiddo,” Dick said. “Bedtime.”
Damian hissed like a cat. HIs eyes narrowed to slits as he glared across the table. “No! I want to explore! You can’t make-“
Cass used her power to lift a slice of bread from the basket on the table and sent it flying into Damian’s face with a pat.
“Hey! What was that for?”
She pointed at Dick and nodded. “Listen.”
“I don’t need to listen to either of you,” he huffed, but his animalistic anger faded.
Dick noticed how Alfred was watching them with fascination. They’d all been shy about revealing their powers in front of him. He knew about Jason’s of course. Dick had been forced to fill him in when he tried to give him an IV and the needle kept falling out. He gathered Bruce had probably told him about their powers already, though, because he didn’t seem surprised by the little display of powers. Besides, he had to notice the rat Damian was hiding in his pocket.
Alfred cleared his throat. “I suppose now is as good a time as any to say this. I am happy to have you all here, and I hope your stay is comfortable and restful. You are welcome to use your powers anywhere in the house, and outside on the grounds as long as none of the garden staff are about. However, I recommend being cautious around anyone other than myself or Bruce, as we are not yet sure how people would react to bread mysteriously flying around, et cetera. Master Bruce hopes to make the transition as easy as possible to living in society again.”
“He wants us to hide?” Damian asked, his hackles rising again. “Deny who we are?”
“No. Of course, it will ultimately be your decision if you want the world to know what you can do. I believe the idea is simply that you should know what you are getting yourself into first, so that you may make an informed decision.”
Dick looked over at Cass and nodded. She did the same. It made sense. Still, it was a relief that they could be themselves freely here, without fear of being punished by guards or forced to fight each other. “That sounds like a good plan to me,” he said for Damian’s sake. “We’ll be careful.”
Alfred inclined his head. “That is all we can ask. Do let me know if you need anything this evening. I shall be in the kitchen.”
Once the butler left the huge dining room, Damian snarled at Dick. “What, you want us to be their little trained doggies? I don’t trust these people. What if we want to leave? Will they chain us up and put us in a little cell?”
Dick did his best not to roll his eyes. “Damester, it’s different here. I know your whole life has been a fight to survive, but try to relax a little. Come on, let’s get ready for bed.”
Damian grumbled, but allowed himself to be herded upstairs by Dick and Cass.
Dick was thankful all the rooms were close to each other. He dropped Damian off in the one designated for him, and then continued on to check in on Jason (still asleep), and Tim, who was finishing off his own meal on a tray. Dick had scrounged in the library earlier and found some nature and tech magazines for him, which were all scattered across his bed.
“Dick! You gotta see this!” he exclaimed, putting down his bowl so that he could snatch up the nearest magazine. “Robotic drones that can fly! You can control them with a phone apparently, I didn’t quite understand all the words here.”
Dick tried not to wince. He’d done his best to teach the others what he knew about reading and writing, but his own skills were fuzzy. Each of them came in with some knowledge, of course, but they’d all been young. Talia always said she would teach them to read once she deemed them field-ready, but that it wasn’t important to develop their meta powers. “That’s great, Tim. I’m sure there’s a lot of cool stuff we missed out on. Like, what kind of movies are popular these days?”
Tim’s eyes glazed over. “Movies… it’s been so long I almost forgot about those. I used to love old black-and-white spy movies when I was little. I think I watched them with my dad.”
“Yeah…” Dick suddenly lost his enthusiasm. “All right, sleep well, buddy. I’m one door down if you need me.”
He slipped out and shut the door. He let out a shaky breath, trying to shove down the memories of sitting squished between his mother and father on a ratty old love-seat in front of a small TV screen. But the feeling of hearing his dad’s laughter as he rested his head against his chest, the feeling of his mom’s fingers combing through his hair, watching The Wizard of Oz and marveling at the magic of it all…
He blinked away tears and shook his head. Cass had snuck up on him again. She wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed tight.
He hugged her back. “I’m all right, Cassie-girl. I’ll be all right.”
“No crying,” she said solemnly. Then she pulled free to sign, You cry, you talk to me, okay?
He laughed despite his moist eyes. “You got it. I give my word.”
Liar. She poked his ribs. You take care of us every day. Now, take care of yourself first. She stood up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. Good night, bird-boy.
He gave her another squeeze. “Good night, Cass. You’re the best of us.”
She grinned. I know.
He watched her walk down the hall to her own bedroom, then wiped his eyes dry. It felt a little lonely, he realized, with each of them separated into single rooms. They’d spent so much of their lives together, he didn’t think he would be able to sleep by himself.
Still, he went into his own room and turned on the warm light of the lamp on the bedside table. It was comforting not to have to sit in the dark. He lay down and tried to relax, but sleep wouldn’t come. Even the bed was too comfortable here. He pulled his blankets off and laid them on the rug. Better. He fluffed one pillow up and squirmed to try to shake off his worries from the last few days.
He was safe. They were all safe. Jason would wake up and feel better soon. Tim would heal quickly with the care he was getting. They’d all adjust to having regular meals. Bruce would keep his promise to help them find a new home. They’d find a way to deal with their powers in a world of non-metas. It would be okay.
Barbara isn’t okay.
The thought gave him pause. He didn’t know Barbara. He’d never even spoken to her mentally like the others had. But Bruce had cared enough about her to infiltrate Talia’s defenses. They’d completely ruined his attempt to free her.
Guilt flooded his thoughts. If they’d been more useful in the fight against those mutant wolves, Barbara could be home with her family. She’d insisted that Bruce get them out though. Why? Had she developed that much of a bond with Timmy? It didn’t make sense. Everyone he’d met until recently had been out to hurt them, betray them, or experiment on them. So far, Bruce seemed to be the one exception. And Alfred. Could it be that people in general were not as cruel as Talia and her guards? He wanted to believe it.
His head swirled. So much to think about. He’d never be able to sleep at this rate. He groaned and pulled another pillow over his face.
A soft, almost imperceptible knock at his door made him sit up. Damian. It had to be. “Come in, Dames,” he said.
The door opened and Damian’s serious face peeped through.
Damian shook his head.
Dick patted the blankets on the floor. “I thought so. Come over here.”
Damian approached cautiously, like a nervous cat slinking through the grass. “This house is too big,” he stated. “I can’t watch my back.”
“I’ll watch it for you.” He leaned against the side of the bed and wrapped the coverlet around them both. Damian gradually relaxed into his side.
“I don’t trust Bruce,” he said. “He’s off doing who-knows-what out there as Batman.”
Dick swallowed. “Why have you been so suspicious of him specifically? Did he say something to upset you?”
“It’s… it’s nothing.”
He raised his eyebrow. “It doesn’t sound like nothing. You’ve been especially harsh anytime Alfred mentioned something that could be a fault. Care to fill me in?”
Damian shifted. Yup, he was definitely hiding something. “I knew about Batman before we met him.”
That was something. “How could you possibly know? You were practically a toddler when Talia brought you into the compound. You knew about him then?”
Damian nodded. “I… My mother told me of him. He’s… He’s supposedly my father.”
Wow. Huh. So that was the big secret that had been eating up his youngest brother. “Stars, really?”
They sat in silence for a long moment.
If Bruce was really Damian’s blood father, what did that mean? How did that even work? Talia hadn’t dropped any hints that she knew Bruce beyond that of a test subject in her grand experiment. What did that make Damian? There were still so many unanswered questions. The Talia he knew had never been motherly with Damian, but the kid insisted that she hadn’t always been that way. What had caused the change?
“He doesn’t know,” Damian added. “He never knew of me.”
“Do you want him to know?”
“No! Not… not yet, anyway. That’s why I have to figure out what kind of man he is.”
Dick squeezed Damian’s thin shoulders. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll help you find out Bruce’s character.”
“Thanks…” He yawned. “I don’t even know if I want to tell him ever… I want to stay with you forever.”
In minutes, Damian had fallen asleep. Hercules the rat climbed up onto his head and made a nest in his thick black hair.
Dick stayed awake long into the night, thinking.
Commissioner Gordon stood next to the Bat-signal as he had for several nights in a row, hoping for news about Barbara. The fact that Batman had not returned yet was either a sign that he was hot on the trail, or a very bad sign indeed. He paced, his fingers twitching for a cigarette. This waiting game was terrible for his self-control.
He knew he ought to give up for the night, shut off the signal, and go back inside. He had ordinary crimes to follow up on, after all. He wasn’t supposed to stay out on the roof all night, doing nothing but worrying.
He swore, staring out at the skyline.
He spluttered and turned around to see Batman standing behind him, his cape waving dramatically in the wind. “Batman, you’re back. Any word?”
Batman was silent for so long that he feared the worst had happened to Barbara.
“No, please tell me she’s alive! Tell me you found her!”
Batman looked away. “I found her. However, circumstances forced me to leave without her.”
His lungs nearly collapsed from the way his breath left him. “What?”
“She’s alive, but definitely in the clutches of Talia al Ghul and her assassins. There was an underground compound hidden in the hills north of here. I’ve already sent the coordinates to the FBI. It seemed Talia was dealing with human experimentation, and she’d laid a trap for me. I found Barbara, but was unable to break her out. I’m so sorry.”
The apology rang hollow in his ears. Devastation and anger swirled together as the words sank in. “No. NO!”
Batman went on as if he didn’t notice that Gordon’s entire life had just been destroyed. “Talia almost certainly fled with everything as soon as I escaped, taking Barbara with her. I’m working on a way to find her again.”
Gordon lost his grip on his fury. He grabbed the front of Batman’s armor and shoved him back. “How dare you! You promised you’d bring her back safely! And you just left her? With a madwoman and her assassins? And, and human experimentation?”
Batman didn’t resist his verbal and physical attack. He allowed himself to be backed up against the low wall around the roof. “I haven’t given up,” he said in a low tone. “I will still do anything in my power to recover her.”
“That’s not enough! And you know it. You’ve failed. Barbara could be dying right now, and you’re… you’re not-“ He gasped, unable to move on from the horrible thought.
“You should know,” Batman said, gently pushing Gordon’s arms down. “I spoke to her. She told me to leave without her. There were others there, mostly children. She cared more about getting those kids to safety first. She gave me a message for you. ‘Tell my father that I love him and he should trust me.’ That’s what she wanted.”
“No!” Gordon turned away. “I don’t care what she told you. You should not have left her to die.”
He whirled around, but Batman was gone.
Bruce pulled off his cowl as soon as he reached the cave. He rubbed his face, certain he’d gained a new set of wrinkles after that encounter. The worst of it was that Gordon was completely right. He never should have left Barbara. He should have found a way to rescue her as well. It didn’t matter that he’d been without his gear, without his tools. He truly had failed Gordon. He’d failed Barbara.
“I’m strong,” she’d said. “These kids need you!”
He shoved the papers and files off his desk in front of his batcomputer. He should have done better. Now he was back to the beginning. How would he find Barbara now? Talia had so many resources and contacts that she could have relocated anywhere in the world. He’d find her… but would it be too late for Barbara?
He could ask the Justice League for help. They’d want to know about Talia’s activities anyway. Besides, Talia had been acting strangely. She seemed different, crueler, stronger, and more cold than the woman he’d known all those years ago.
And she hadn’t let on that she knew him as well as she should. Why?
There were still too many pieces he had to put together. On the computer, he opened up his written report of the mission to keep adding details as he remembered them. He added as much of their conversations as he could recall, details about her guards, the equipment he’d seen, what they’d done to him… He paused. What had she done to him? What was the point of all of this? Why experiment on these kids? Why lure him in just to try to kill him in her arena, anyway?
She’d drawn blood, he knew. Quite a bit. But it didn’t seem like she’d activated any metahuman powers in him. What was the point?
He put his head in his hands, trying not to let the exhaustion catch up to him. He’d barely slept since returning. Between getting the kids settled, debriefing Alfred, and patrol as Batman, he’d been on his feet most of the day. And he’d driven through most of the night after their fight to escape. Maybe he could just close his eyes for a moment…
Soft footsteps entered the cave and stopped. He looked up and found Damian standing there, looking guilty as he froze like a deer in the headlights. “Oh, you’re back,” he said.
Bruce stood. “How did you get in here?”
“I followed Hercules’ nose.” He held up his rat. Then he looked up at the ceiling. “Did you know you have bats in here?”
Bruce nodded. “Do they talk to you too?”
“Yeah. They’re chatty right now.”
“Because they’re nocturnal.” He watched in amazement as several bats flew down from the stalactites up in the ceiling and flew around Damian, squeaking softly.
“Yeah, they’re happy to have someone new to talk to. They say that you’re too quiet and broody.” Damian looked at him out of the corner of his eyes. The bats flew off to their hidden perches above. “What are you doing, anyway?”
“I’m looking for Barbara.” He gestured back at the computer. “It’s going to take awhile, though. Why aren’t you asleep?”
“Why aren’t you?”
This kid was going to be a handful, wasn’t he? “I’m an adult, and I have responsibilities to take care of. You should be resting, however.”
“I was. I just woke up. Dick finally fell asleep though.” He didn’t offer any more information, but it seemed like he was implying that they were taking shifts sleeping. “I want to help,” he said at last.
“You want to help find Barbara,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure how you can-“
Damian suddenly flinched. A moment later, Bruce heard a voice in his head. Tim’s.
“Jason’s screaming! Someone, please check on him!”
Damian and Bruce locked eyes, and then both raced for the stairs.
Jason’s world was made up of only pain. He wanted nothing more than to slip back into unconsciousness, but fate had other plans, it seemed. His body flamed with fever, attempting to fight off whatever was causing his muscles and joints and very bones to throb with agony. A distant part of him remembered that Talia had caused this somehow, and hatred flared up alongside the pain. He thrashed his limbs and panicked when something twisted around them and prevented him from moving freely. What had captured him?
He tried to roll over and found his face planted in a suffocating substance. He couldn’t breathe! He needed air, now!
“Jason!” he thought he heard someone say. “Calm down, you’re safe! I know it hurts, but you’re going to injure yourself-“
A lie. He couldn’t hurt himself. Not for long. Someone was trying to keep him captured here. He had to escape, he had to run… Wait, if they didn’t want him to hurt himself…
He scratched at his own arm, drawing blood. The sensation was enough for him to focus momentarily on that and push aside the constant pain all through his body. He tried to open his eyes but his lids were too heavy.
“Jason, it’s me, Tim!”
Get out! His thoughts screamed. He couldn’t remember why it was bad for Tim to be there. Maybe because the pain would spill out into their mental link. He blocked his thoughts as best as he could manage with the constant distraction of the pain. This was for him to bear alone.
Someone tried to grab his wrist, but he fought them. His fingernails scraped down someone’s skin, and the hand retreated. Talia wouldn’t be able to hurt the others. She would have to go through him!
“Jason, please calm down, we’re all safe! Tim?”
“He won’t listen, he shoved me out-“
“We can’t let him hurt himself like this. Alfred, help me hold him down.”
Something clamped down on his arm. He screamed, his throat throbbing at the effort.
“I can’t get his other arm! He’s moving too much.”
“Cass, can you help? I hate to ask it of you, but…”
Then suddenly his entire body went rigid. He couldn’t move! His heart pounded painfully in his chest. He lost his grip on everything else, and focused all his energy on trying to break free.
A calm feeling washed over his thoughts, bringing with it the suggestion of sleep.
Tears trickled out from under his shut eyelids. Everything still hurt so much, but his body wasn’t responding anymore. He was so tired…
“You have the sedative?”
“I have no idea what kind of dosage to give him.”
Someone laid a cool hand on his forehead. “Go back to sleep, Jason,” said a firm but gentle voice. “No harm will come to you while you rest. Your brothers are here, watching over you.”
Brothers, huh? He rolled the words around in his mind, allowing them to bring a strange sense of warmth. He was too tired to fight against it any longer. The voices faded into an indistinct murmur, and Jason finally slipped into a deep slumber.
Barbara woke as cold water splashed over her head and into her mouth and nose. She coughed and choked until she could catch a full breath and clear her lungs. She shook the icy liquid from her face and looked around her, wide-eyed.
She thought over what she could remember. She’d fought them, trying to leave some sort of clue for Batman, but they realized what she was up to and knocked her out with whatever was in that needle.
Now she was in a different cell. This one was slightly bigger, with a small light in the corner under a cage. There was a cot built into the wall, but no blankets. A toilet and sink, but no other furniture. Was this to be her new home?
“She’s awake,” came a gruff voice. She spun around and found the guard who had splashed her with ice water. Behind him, standing in the open doorway, was Talia. “What do you want to do with her?”
“Bring her out. I want a look at her.”
She coughed again, trying to determine if she had enough strength to fight them. She decided that she didn’t. “Where are we now?” she asked.
The guard hauled her up by her bound arms. “That’s none of your concern.”
She buzzed with anger. There was something… different inside her. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it yet.
Talia made the guard stop in front of her. She inspected Barbara visually. “I don’t see any obvious mutations, so the meta-gene must be internal, as we hoped.”
“Do you think she has the meta enhancement we’ve been searching-“
“Silence,” Talia snapped. “We will know soon enough what kind of powers she possesses. Discussing it will do nothing.”
Her damp skin began to crawl.
Talia spun around and the guard dragged her after, following down the hall. This location felt more sterile and white, but even so, mold covered parts of the walls, and there were toadstools cropping up around the corners of the floor tiles. Light filtered in through what looked like cloudy skylights far above. So they weren’t underground, perhaps. Perhaps this would not be as bad as the last lair Talia had claimed.
They entered through a pair of double doors, where two men were busy at work installing high-security locks. They stepped aside to let them through.
Barbara wanted to know what was inside but dreaded it all the same. Was this another experiment room? Her heart started to pound, and that weird buzzing sensation rose up under her skin again. What was that?
Talia stepped aside, revealing the contents of the room. A table with straps. A metal prod of some sort. There was a cabinet in the corner. A man stood at laptop workstation in the corner. Very little else.
“Put her there,” she said dispassionately.
The guard dropped her unceremoniously on the table and strapped her down. She didn’t have the energy to struggle much. Besides, she’d already learned that it didn’t gain her anything. Better to see what Talia had planned first.
“All right, let’s take a look at you.” Talia pulled on a pair of latex gloves. “Do you know what your powers are yet?”
Barbara shook her head mutely.
“Hmm. We’ll figure it out together then.” Talia gestured at the man who was standing at the side of the room. One of the scientists, she gathered. “Hook her up.”
The man attached several nodes to her arms and chest and face. “These should pick up any discrepancy in her vitals or physical response,” he said. Then he slipped a headband around her forehead. “And this should register any unusual mental activity.” He stepped back. “The subject is ready.”
Talia nodded and stepped close to Barbara. “Test one: response to light.” She shone a penlight into Barbara’s eyes.
The beam was so bright it hurt. She turned her face away and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Result: normal human pupil action and physical response.”
The scientist scribbled down the results on his tablet.
Talia picked up a small hammer. “Test two: reflexes.” She tapped Barbara’s kneecaps, and her legs twitched under their bindings. “Normal human reflexes and reaction time.”
The tests continued, from blood pressure to extreme temperature variations. Each time the results came back normal. This seemed to excite Talia for some reason. She switched to more complex tests. She threw small wooden balls at Barbara. She applied pressure to her temples and poked her hands with needles. She waved a magnet over her face.
All the while, Talia asked her questions like, “Do you sense anything different? What number am I thinking of? Answer correctly and I’ll give you a breather.” Or, “Try to predict where I’m going to poke you next and we’ll stop for the day.”
She couldn’t answer any of them, so she didn’t try.
At last, Talia stopped and frowned down at her. Ah, so her patience was starting to wear thin. “We’re going to try the next level of tests.” She turned away to converse with the scientist in the corner, out of Barbara’s line of sight.
Next level? Barbara didn’t like the sound of that. She wished she could rub her aching wrists, but the bindings stayed firmly in place. The buzzing in her head continued, but at least it stayed out of the way of her thoughts. If she could figure out what her power was without revealing it to Talia, that could give her an advantage. But how? If all of these tests failed to bring it out, what then?
“Whether due to some default of their DNA or disposition, some of our past subjects have proven to be reluctant in drawing out their developing meta abilities. I have discovered that the best way to encourage this process is with pain.” Talia returned, holding a syringe filled with an unknown liquid. “And fortunately pain is something that we can provide in great quantities.”
Not good. Barbara strained against the straps that held her down, half-hoping that super strength would manifest in her and she could avoid whatever was in that syringe.
No such luck. Talia calmly approached and inserted the needle into her upper arm. “I’ll start with a small dose. After all, we don’t want you to lose your grip on consciousness just yet.”
The pain started as a tight knot in the muscles of her arm, localized there but slowly seeping down toward her fingers and up to her shoulder. It felt like a really bad pinch under her skin, sharper than a bruise. She grit her teeth and refused to cry out, even though her eyes watered.
“Do you know how we created this formula?” Talia leaned over her and whispered. “One of our early subjects turned out to have an extremely robust healing factor, and developed the habit of breaking his own own bones in order to attempt escape. We had to find a way to neutralize him without putting him down permanently. This was our solution. As long as he was in pain, he couldn’t keep fighting us. Eventually we broke him of the habit and he settled in, knowing that he would suffer if he fought us.”
Jason, Barbara realized through the haze of pain. Tim had told her enough about the older teen’s abilities that she wasn’t too surprised. “But he got away in the end, didn’t he?” she ground out between her clenched teeth. It was worth it, she realized suddenly. She’d made her choice, but now she felt a swell of pride and satisfaction in that choice. She’d helped those kids get out of this mess, so it was completely worth all the pain and fear she’d been through recently. Batman had understood this. That’s why he left when she told him to.
Talia didn’t react visually, but she did coldly insert the syringe into Barbara’s other arm and administer more of the pain drug.
Barbara couldn’t help the whimper that emerged as the pain spread to her chest. Every muscle tensed at the ragged pain as it traveled through her veins. She couldn’t breathe!
“I suggest you reach inside yourself and figure out what your power is,” Talia said. “Once the drug hits your brain, it will be impossible to have a conversation for a few hours. You have mere minutes to convince me to administer the antidote.”
Barbara nearly laughed despite her panic. Did she really have an antidote? Somehow that was doubtful. But with nothing better to do, she closed her eyes and tried to grab onto that buzzing feeling inside her.
Nothing happened. The pain gradually built until she couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. She gasped for breath.
Talia sighed somewhere nearby. In the midst of her pain, Barbara imagined that she was floating on an island in a sunless sea, where not even the moon could shine on the waves. Talia drifted away, saying something to her guards about returning after the pain drug had run its course.
And then the pain swallowed up her ability to think, and she screamed.
Waking was a process that started with a jolt of panic. She would have cried out, but her throat was too sore. She tried to reach up and rub at it, but everything ached. And furthermore, she was still tied down.
Ah. The memory of the pain throbbed in her veins. She still hurt all over, but the pain had dulled somewhat; she was starting to be able to think again. Talia had hoped this torture would jar loose her meta powers, did she? Well, it seemed it hadn’t worked. She still sensed that buzzing in the back of her mind, but it had quieted some. She wondered if it was like a swarm of bees, and all her uncontrollable screaming had scared it off. Perhaps that was for the best, because after all, you didn’t want to upset a cloud of hornets if you could help it.
She opened her eyes. The room was dimmer than before, thankfully. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle the bright utility light that had been on before. Her head ached with what was probably a migraine. The band around her forehead didn’t help.
Talia had not yet returned. The scientist was also gone. Her only company was a brutish guard standing by the closed door, armed with some kind of gun.
She wiggled her wrists in their bindings. Perhaps if, as Tim might say, the stars were in her favor, the guard just might be persuaded…
“Hey Ugly!” she yelled.
He whipped his head around to glare at her.
“What’s a girl got to do to get a bathroom break around here? It’s been hours!”
He actually seemed taken aback by that. “Test subjects don’t get ‘bathroom breaks,’” he said at last. He looked away.
So he was going to play hard to get. “Well, my bladder doesn’t care about that,” she snapped back. “I mean, I guess if nature calls, even getting tied up and poked with needles by a group of crazies doesn’t change that. So what do you say?”
The guard shifted his feet but didn’t look back in her direction.
“No fraternizing with the prisoners, huh?” she called. “Fine. But someone’s gonna have to clean up this torture board if I don’t get to a toilet in like, five minutes. And I can guarantee it won’t be Talia who gets that lovely chore.”
She held her breath for thirty seconds while she waited. When the guard didn’t respond, she raised her voice. “All right, but I just thought I’d save you some trouble, you know?”
He sighed heavily, and she knew she’d won. “Fine. But one sign of mischief and I tase you.” He sheathed his gun and pulled out a taser instead.
She forced herself to stay outwardly relaxed as he approached and unstrapped one wrist. Then he did the other bindings and let her sit up.
“Hurry it up,” he growled, gesturing for her to stand. “No dawdling.”
She nodded. Her head swam from the sudden change in altitude. If she was going to make an escape, now would be her chance. But she hated how weak she felt.
“The bathroom is through there,” he said, pointing at a metal door in the far wall.
Barbara weighed her options briefly. She let the guard shuffle her toward the door for a few steps while she gathered her strength. She tried to remember everything she’d learned from her self-defense classes her dad made her take.
She spun around and jabbed the man in the eyes with her fingers.
He grunted and swung his arm blindly to try to grab her, but she ducked out of his reach and circled behind him. She kicked out one of his knees and his leg buckled.
But now what? The door to the hall was still locked, and she didn’t have anything to knock the guy out.
Something hit her in the chest, and an electric current buzzed through her. She went rigid, unable to move, and a raw sound of pain rippled out of her. He tased me! She realized with horror. She fell to the floor as the electricity coursed through her for what felt like several long minutes.
But in the midst of the horrible feeling of being shocked, she felt that strange buzzing sensation again, and this time it roared awake. She reached out to it, desperate to find anything that could fight the pain.
The shock from the taser ended at last. Barbara gasped for air, her limbs shuddering and twitching. But the buzzing continued to crescendo in her until she was quivering with the strange sensation. It stilled the twitching in her arms and legs, and suddenly she felt like she could breathe again.
It was like she’d been half-asleep for days, living as an incomplete person, and the taser had shaken her all the way awake. She was whole for the first time, and she didn’t know what that meant, but she was ready to find out.
She stood up.
The guard had recovered enough to draw his other gun. “Get on your knees!” he shouted. “Or I fill you up with pain bullets!”
She leaped at him without hesitation. She swiped his gun aside and it skittered away on the hard floor. He tried to punch her in the face, but she blocked with one arm and lunged for his face again with the other.
As soon as her fingers touched his jaw, the buzzing turned into a swarm and she somehow sent it flooding into his face. He went rigid as she had only moments before.
Electricity. Her power had something to do with electricity, she realized at last.
The man screamed and his eyes rolled up in his head. She jerked away, afraid it might kill him.
He slumped to the floor and didn’t move.
She looked down at her steady hands. The one she’d used to electrocute the guard was smoking slightly, but as she flexed her fingers, they seemed to be completely fine. Okay. She’d have to deal with this later. Right now, escape.
She rummaged through the guard’s uniform, but he had no keys or card that would open the doors. She grabbed his gun and stuck it in her waistband. Just in case.
Her head still hurt. It was hard to think. She realized that the headband the scientist had put on her was still pressing into her temples. She ripped it off and tossed it aside. It didn’t help. Think, Barbara! There had to be a way out. She could use the guard’s radio, but they’d know it was her. She picked it up anyway. It sparked and fizzled in her grasp, and she yelped. Somehow she’d fried the electronics inside. Great, was this going to be her new normal? Would she be cursed to always wear gloves?
No, no, she told herself. Get a grip. Her powers were completely new to her. She would have to find a way to control it, use it to her advantage, just as the others had. She just had to focus.
She noticed the scientist’s computer workstation was still on in the corner of the room. Perhaps that had a way to open the doors. This place was pretty high-tech, and she’d seen the team that had installed the doors as they brought her in.
She used her shirt as a buffer as she touched the mouse, and briefly clicked through the files she found.
At Gotham University, she’d been double majoring in Library Science and Computer Science. She knew her way around a computer. But this was obviously a custom-built machine with a very specific purpose. What if she couldn’t find what she needed? And if she couldn’t even touch the keyboard without fear of frying it…
She took a deep breath. She could do this. Batman wasn’t coming. She had to make her own escape, and this computer could be the key.
She focused on the buzzing in her head, which had become a constant sort of hum. It was almost a comforting sound now. She tried to squish it down into the recesses of her mind, in the hope that she could contain it long enough for her to use the computer. When she felt like she’d pushed it far enough back, she slowly let out her breath and grazed her fingertips over the keyboard.
She jumped into her first task: searching through the files for any door controls.
As she searched, however, she began to wonder about the dozens of data files that the scientists had been creating over the past few weeks and months. She dug a little deeper and found the backups that went as far back as five years ago. She opened one and found a sterile report about one of the test subjects. It didn’t list the person’s name, of course, but she guessed chances were high that it was one of the kids.
Administered booster serum. After extensive physical and mental stress-tests, no positive results were achieved. It seems the meta gene becomes locked after initial activation. More tests required to determine at what point this occurs. Test subject was treated for wounds and returned to holding cell.
Barbara’s anger flared at that. This was just one instance of what was likely to be dozens of inhumane tests these people had done to those kids. They had no right—
The buzzing escaped from the mental box she’d confined it to, using her anger as a conduit.
“No!” she cried, jerking her hands away from the computer.
But it was too late. The current flowed out of her and into the laptop.
Just as she was pulling her hand back, however, her power connected with something. For the briefest moment, she could feel the computer. As soon as she pulled away, the sensation was cut off.
The computer’s screen flickered, but that was it. No power surge, no smoke or sparks.
Tentatively, she reached out again. As soon as her hands touched the keys, the connection resumed. In that instant, she felt like she was flying along a fiber-optic cable into cyberspace. Data flooded into her mind. The contents of the files around her zapped into her knowledge so fast that she nearly forgot to breathe. It hurt! So much information would explode her brain if it didn’t stop! She saw so many reports of awful tests and statistics and graphs. She saw photos of terrible wounds that healed, guards that were injured by violent tendencies in a feral boy, psychological assessments of various traumas and weaknesses. She could even sense the encrypted files that Talia had hidden on this drive. Including their contents.
She froze, and the rest of the data faded away into the background. The files she’d stumbled into contained information that was almost impossible to believe, if she hadn’t already experienced so many strange things herself. So this was what Talia was up to?
All thoughts of escape fell away as less important. She had to get a message to Batman somehow. Even if she did manage to escape on her own, he needed to know about this.
She opened her eyes and stared at the screen. Her fingers tapped a few commands to open up a connection to Talia’s secure servers that were gradually coming online. A security challenge window popped up, but she somehow used her power to nudge the password screen away.
An alarm went off. Oops. She’d probably triggered some kind of hacking detection. Huh. She would have to practice more to see what she could actually do with her strange abilities.
Still, between her previous knowledge of computers and her newfound almost magical control over it, she managed to compose a short but informative encrypted message. She sent it directly to the GCPD, but addressed it to Batman. He’d find it. He always seemed to have uncanny knowledge of her father’s secret files anyway. This was just one more way to ensure that he’d see it.
Someone pounded on the door, shouting for the guard to answer. Time was up. She unplugged the laptop and took it with her, hoping to use it later to navigate a way out of this maze.
She stood to the side of the door, waiting for the guards to open up and rush inside. She had all but forgotten about the gun in her waistband. After all, if she had to, it seemed her very hands could be a weapon. And she would use them again if she had to.
She couldn’t wait around for Batman to get her message and find her. She had to do this on her own.
Yikes this chapter nearly did me in! XD It has not been edited much though, so if you see any inconsistencies or typos feel free to let me know, haha.
There should be one more full chapter after this (which may split into two if I get overwhelmed), and then a short epilogue. Thanks SO MUCH for all the love and support through your exuberant comments. This story has taken off WAY more than I ever anticipated* and the response has been amazing. YOU'RE THE BEST!
*this was originally going to be a one-shot. ROFL
Everyone takes action the way they know how! Bruce tries to deal with stubborn kids who want to help, Barbara avoids assassins, and Talia closes in...
(Sorry for the looong delay in updating! Life kinda happened a lot, but maybe this long chapter makes up for it a little?)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
After Jason finally woke up for real a day later, Tim relaxed a little. His own wound was healing nicely, thanks to Alfred’s care. If it kept up at this rate, he’d be able to run and jump just fine in a day. Maybe a little pain, sure. But he’d been through worse.
“Young Tim,” came Alfred’s calm voice. “Why are you not using the crutches we gave you?”
Tim groaned and turned to face Alfred as he walked up the hall. Yeah. Alfred was quite the mother hen. Even worse than Dick, and that was saying something. “I’m fine, Alfred,” he insisted. “Barely even a limp, see?” He demonstrated a few careful steps over the carpet.
Alfred’s eyebrows twitched. “That is hardly the point, young man. Now please use those crutches or I will be forced to contact Doctor Thompkins after all.”
Tim blanched. That was something he’d been dreading. “No doctors,” he said. “I’m fine. I’ll use them. Okay?”
He limped back to his room (okay, so maybe his leg hurt a little after all), and retrieved the crutches. Stupid things. He only used them because he could sense the sincere concern and care that the old man had for him. If he was being fake in any way, the crutches would go out the window. But this Alfred Pennyworth, he was impossible to hate.
Armed with his new supports, Tim navigated his way downstairs. This was not his ideal mode of transportation, but since he couldn’t fly like Dick, crutches it was.
He made his way to the secret door to the Batcave in the library. After Damian had found out about it, it didn’t take long before all of them were using it whenever they wanted to. Bruce obviously didn’t like them being down there, but he didn’t stop them for some reason. Maybe he secretly liked the company?
Cass was probably already down there. She appreciated how dark and quiet it was, and she didn’t have to worry about accidentally breaking valuable vases or damaging expensive rugs like upstairs.
Damian also seemed to be fond of the cave, probably because of all the bats and other creepy cave critters. He’d already named several of them.
Tim wondered as he descended into the lower level if Damian would ever tell Bruce the truth. Yeah, he knew about his connection to Bruce. After all, secrets between all of them were uncommon and now that he’d opened up to Dick, of course the rest of them quickly caught on. Jason even guessed it during one of their mental conversations earlier that day.
Damian was possibly Bruce’s own son. What did that mean for him? For all of them? He wouldn’t try to take Damian away from them, would he?
He reached the first platform of the cave and looked around. Cass was over on the practice mats, meditating or something. She was hovering a foot above the ground, with several weights floating around her. He shrugged and kept hobbling deeper into the cave.
No sign of Damian. Or Bruce. Perfect.
He made a beeline for the big computer that Bruce used frequently. He’d been wanting to touch it ever since he first saw it, but Bruce had given him an unreadable look when he approached it earlier, and it had freaked him out so much that he backed away. It was uncanny how the guy could shield his thoughts from him. It wasn’t natural.
Maybe it really was his meta power, and he’d been lying all along about not having one. Or maybe he didn’t even realize it.
He leaned his crutches against the desk and sat in the massive black leather chair, feeling suddenly quite small. Still, it was satisfying to spin around in it. He stopped and tapped on the keyboard.
The screen glowed to life. He marveled at the little icons and files he found, even though it would be difficult to try to read them. He was better at it than Cass, but reading was still not something any of them could do very well. Yet. That was one of the things he’d decided in the last few days: he was going to learn how to read. He was going to learn how to use computers. And he was going to learn how to defend himself and others from people like Talia.
“Hey, whatcha doing?”
Tim jumped and looked up guiltily, but it was only Dick, leaning on the back of the chair as he floated in midair. No wonder he hadn’t heard any footsteps approach. “I’m just curious about what Bruce uses this computer for,” he said. “I know he probably won’t, but I want him to teach me how to use it.”
Dick hummed. “Yeah, unlikely. But maybe a different computer?”
Tim tapped thoughtfully at a single key. To his delight, a window popped up onscreen. “Hey look!”
Dick frowned. “Maybe you shouldn’t mess with-“
The computer began to beep urgently.
Tim panicked. “I didn’t do anything! Promise!”
Bruce swept into the room from the stairs. “Step aside,” he said. “I need to check something.”
Tim practically launched himself out of the chair. Dick swooped down to stop him from colliding with the floor.
Bruce, who was wearing his Batman suit without the cowl, stared at the screen intently. “Hmm.”
“What is it?” Tim squeaked. He wished his voice would stop doing that.
“An encrypted message. It popped up in the GCPD files…”
“GCPD?” Tim exchanged a shrug with Dick.
“Gotham City Police Department,” Bruce said absently. “But it didn’t originate there. I need to take a closer look. All of you, back upstairs, now.”
“But I want to know-“
Tim brushed against Bruce’s thoughts and was greeted by his iron-firm mental wall. Of course. He shuffled over to his crutches and let Dick usher him back upstairs.
The message was well encrypted. It took Bruce longer than he’d like to admit to unravel it and parse out what it said. He doubted that the GCPD had even noticed its presence. It was only because of the hidden trojan bots he’d set up that his system detected the anomaly at all.
He was still not sure he liked the idea of the kids being around the cave. He hadn’t planned on showing it to them this soon, but somehow they’d all wormed their way inside. That is, all except Jason, who was still confined to bed and under Alfred’s strict surveillance to make sure he wouldn’t relapse or have lasting complications from his ordeal.
Bruce shook his head. Those kids were constantly invading his thoughts, and he wasn’t just talking about Tim’s power. He couldn’t stop thinking about them, and the problem of what to do about them still weighed heavily on him. He wished he could just wave a hand and give them the happy, normal life they deserved, but it just wasn’t that simple.
His computer beeped, letting him know the decryption was complete. The file was ready to open.
He paused. Whoever had sent this file had addressed it to him. The filename was simply the letters BAT and a string of numbers.
He opened it.
All it contained were some strings of data and a trace back to a location’s coordinates. And three sentences:
Talia al Ghul has other captives here. Based on the data contained here, it seems she isn’t from our universe, and she’s planning to use the lives of her remaining test subjects to take back what she’s learned about meta genes to her world. I’m going to try to stop her, but I want you to have this information in case I fail.
“Barbara,” he realized. Somehow she’d managed to get out this information without being caught. Good for her. But if she was going to try to take on Talia, that wouldn’t be easy by herself.
He scanned through the data she’d provided him. Indeed, it looked like she was telling the truth. It all made sense now why Talia had been acting so strangely. She wasn’t the Talia he knew after all. She’d come from an alternate universe somewhere out there and set up her mad experiment in this world. How long had she been hiding here?
Long enough to kidnap enough kids to test over the course of several years. Long enough to destroy their lives and ruin any chance of normalcy.
He shook his head. First things first, he had to get to Barbara. He skipped down to the coordinates. They weren’t exact, but it did help him pinpoint a general location. It would take a little more digging, but he would find her.
Talia has other captives here.
That phrase gave him pause. He should have known. What others had she snatched? Who had gone missing from the world to be used in Talia’s machinations? How did she intend to “use their lives” to return to her own universe?
He tugged at his gloves. He’d work until he could find the exact spot where Talia had moved her operation.
Suddenly, his neck prickled, and he spun around.
Cass stood there silently, watching him.
“I thought I told you to go upstairs with the others.”
She signed something at him. He hadn’t picked up too much of her language yet. Tim had told him that they’d invented it themselves.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t understand.”
She pointed at herself. Then she mimed putting binoculars up to her eyes and pointed at him.
“You’re watching me,” he said slowly. Ah. He was starting to understand.
These kids didn’t trust him yet. They’d been hanging out in the cave so much… in part because they wanted to keep a close eye on him.
The thought made his stomach twist a little. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said gently. “Not any of you.”
She shrugged and nodded. Then she pointed upstairs.
“You know, but the others don’t trust me?”
She smiled briefly. Then she launched into a rapid series of signs he couldn’t follow.
“Cass…” he said, wondering if he dared breach the subject he’d been avoiding for too long. “Why don’t you speak much? I’ve heard for myself that your voice works. Why do you sign instead?”
Her expression darkened and she took a step back. She shook her head. “No,” she said.
Then she fled upstairs.
Bruce ran a hand through his hair. This was the part he didn’t know how to handle yet. He’d never had to deal with traumatized kids for a prolonged period of time. Maybe Alfred was right. Maybe he just wasn’t equipped for the kind of help they needed.
He couldn’t think of anything else to do. Unless… He could call the League and hand them off to someone who might be better suited to this. Clark had powers, plus he probably had more experience with kids. Diana was capable as well.
Any of them could be better at this than he was. Then why did the thought of handing the kids off to one of his colleagues make his stomach twist even more?
He shook his head. He didn’t have time to think about his inadequacies in caring for them right now. He would deal with that after Barbara was safe and Talia was stopped.
He just wished that he hadn’t upset Cass in the process.
Jason waited until Alfred stepped out to prepare breakfast before he finally ventured to stand up and navigate out into the hall by himself. He stretched carefully and was thrilled when his muscles and joints didn’t ache with the pain drug anymore. Finally, back on his feet. He punched the doorframe to be sure he was back in order.
One of his knuckles split and he winced at the throbbing pain, but it faded quickly. The small cut closed up a few minutes later. He flexed his hand. Good as new.
As he was heading downstairs, curious about the Batcave that Tim and Dick had told him about, he met Cass as she was storming upstairs, a dark look on her face.
“Hey, what’s up?” he asked. “Did Damian bite you?”
She shook her head. “Bruce,” she said, and tried to walk past him.
He stopped her. “Come on, Cass, what did he do?”
She signed, Asking too many questions. I don’t want to talk. She shoved past and hurried up the rest of the stairs.
“Ooookay…” he said.
“Jason, you’re up!” That was Dick’s cheery voice.
He descended the rest of the stairs and was met by Dick and Tim. “Yeah, I figured I’d been sitting in bed too long already. I’m back to normal, so stop giving me that look, Dick.”
Dick sighed. “Good. I’m glad.” But there was a distracted expression in his eyes.
“What’s wrong? Cass just went by all upset about something, and now you two look like someone stole your breakfast. What is going on in this house?”
“It’s about Bruce—“ Dick began.
“Yeah, figured that much. But what’s got everyone on edge? Did he snap? Yell at Cass?”
“I don’t think so,” Tim said. “But he’s definitely keeping us in the dark about something. Maybe Barbara. You seen Damian around lately?”
“Why?” Jason asked.
Tim grinned. “Because I think he might still be spying on Bruce down there. After all, he’s the smallest, and he’s got sneaky rats and bats.”
“I’m gonna see if I can contact him mentally, hang on.” Tim closed his eyes and focused for a moment.
Jason held back a sigh. They barely knew Bruce, really. Why shouldn’t they all just leave in the middle of the night to find their own way in this strange new world outside the compound? Why stick around?
“Hey, I found Damian! He’s still down in the cave after all. He said Bruce asked Cass why she doesn’t talk much.”
Jason squeezed his hands into fists. “Idiot. He can’t go around tossing out questions like that without knowing what they cost!”
“I beg your pardon, but neither of us could know what topics are off-limits until you tell us,” came Alfred’s mild reply.
All three of them jumped. “Wow, I guess Damian isn’t the only sneaky one around here,” Dick said lightly.
Jason growled, ignoring Dick’s attempt to lighten his mood. “Isn’t it obvious? Cass doesn’t talk because of what happened to her back in that compound! Because of what Talia did to her. That should be enough for him!” He marched past them. “Now, where’s this secret entrance so I can have a little chat with our host?”
“Hang on!” Tim said in his head, excluding Alfred. “Damian’s saying that Bruce has a lead on Barbara or something.”
Jason kept walking down the grand hall, forcing Dick and Tim to follow him and leaving Alfred behind. “How in the galaxies can he tell?”
“Before Bruce sent us upstairs, he received a message on his computer. He sent us away so he could decode it. It was apparently from Barbara.”
Dick stopped him in front of a door, but blocked him from entering. “Here’s the library. What are you planning, Jase? Or are you just looking for another fight you can’t win?”
Jason glared at him, but Dick didn’t budge.
“We need to help Bruce get Barbara back,” Tim piped up. “Right, Jason?”
“It’s our fault that she’s still there,” he answered quietly. “I don’t like Bruce keeping us in the dark.”
“Guys, even if he does have a lead to where Barbara is, Bruce isn’t going to let us tag along,” Dick said, still blocking the door. “Look at us? We can barely function. Tim’s still on crutches!”
“I don’t really need them,” Tim said quickly.
“Then why are you leaning on them so much? And besides, Bruce is Batman, who is apparently one of the world’s best-known heroes. He’s worked with super-human people before.”
“And he’s allegedly more ‘normal’ than any of us,” Tim argued back. “If he can fight and help people, so can we!”
Dick folded his arms. “I’m not going to let any of you get hurt again. Not like this. We’re barely holding together as it is. Why can’t you see that?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jason said. He pushed Dick aside roughly. “At least I can help. You two should probably stay here with Damian and Cass anyway. I can take anything that Talia and her men throw at me.”
“Uh, no you can’t. You just woke up from a pain fest that lasted days!”
“And I’m better than ever now, and itching to have some action. You can understand that, can’t you?”
Dick sighed. “Actually, yeah.”
Jason smirked. He’d won, and he knew it. Dick was stubborn at times, but he wasn’t that hard to convince if you knew how to talk to him. You just had to speak his language. “You didn’t talk to Barbara directly. Tim had the most contact with her out of all of us. What do you think, Timster?”
Tim blinked, apparently not expecting to be consulted. He quickly recovered. “Barbara is our friend now. She sacrificed her chance at freedom so that Bruce could help us escape instead. I say we at least try to find out where she’s being held.”
“Drake is right.”
All three of them rolled their eyes at the voice. Behind them was Damian, slipping out of the doorway.
Cass slipped up to join them as well, an uneasy expression on her face like she had recently been holding back tears. Jason decided not to comment on it this time.
Damian crossed his arms. “I don’t like leaving loose ends.”
They all stared at each other for a long moment.
“Are we all in agreement, then?” Tim asked. “We talk to Bruce?”
“Talk to me about what?” The man in question opened the door to the study and found them there in the hall.
Jason didn’t miss how Cass flinched back, and he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Whatever had gone on between them, he didn’t like it. Cass was precious to all of them, he wasn’t afraid to admit that much, but if Bruce had really been heartless and asked—
To his surprise, Bruce softened his expression and looked right at her. “Cass. I’m sorry. I won’t press anymore. If I ever make you uncomfortable again, just do this.” He crossed his arms in an “X” shape. “I’ll back off.”
Jason wanted to punch him. Of all the stupid things…
Cass responded better. She nodded once solemnly. And that was that. Apparently she forgave him. She truly was the best of them. Jason wasn’t so forgiving.
“So, what’s all this about?” Bruce said, looking over all of them gathered in his hall.
“I think you know,” Jason said. “You got a message from Barbara.”
Dick, who had previously been so against this, was now the one to take the lead. Figures. “You know where she is now, don’t you? And you’re going after her.”
Tim confirmed it before Bruce could even open his mouth. “Yeah, he’s surprised we figured it out so fast.”
Bruce let out an exasperated breath. “Please don’t do that.”
“What, read your mind? I didn’t. At least, not directly… Your expression kinda gave it away, and then you just confirmed it now.”
“Tim’s just sharp like that,” Jason explained.
Dick sidled up closer to Bruce. “So. Here’s what’s going to happen. Either you let us come with you now, or you force us to stay behind and we follow after you anyway, on our own. And I don’t think you would like that option very much, would you?”
Jason watched Bruce very closely to see how he would react to that. Overall, his expressions were so subtle that probably only Tim could read them. But there was a hint of displeasure in his brow. Yeah. Take that, Bruceman. These “kids” aren’t going to sit around like all your expensive furniture.
He heard Tim stifle a snort and realized that he must have projected that thought loud enough for Tim to pick up on.
“There’s really nothing I can say to convince you all to stay here, where it’s safe?” Bruce asked quietly. “Not even the fact that Barbara may have already escaped on her own?”
Well, that was impressive. But Jason shook his head. “We can’t rest until we’re sure she’s out of Talia’s reach. And if we get a chance to punch some thugs…” He smacked his fist. “Talia needs to go down.”
Dick laughed nervously. “Let’s not get too greedy.”
Bruce rubbed a hand over his face. At last he spoke. “You all are absolutely crazy to want to go back in there. I know you’re not ordinary kids, and you’ve got skills beyond your years. But it isn’t safe for anyone, even with your meta powers. Still… I can see you’re dead-set on it. I’d rather have you with me where I can keep an eye on you.”
Jason nodded, hiding his relief that they wouldn’t have to fight with him about it. It seemed that Bruce had some sense after all.
Bruce held up a hand before they could all start talking. “If you’re going to come, we do things my way. And you’re all going to need some gear.”
Jason liked the sound of that.
He wanted to let out the beast inside, but Bruce wouldn’t let him stop to catch his breath.
“Good, Damian,” Bruce said appraisingly when he dodged the attack and ducked out of reach of his fist. “You must have trained with the others a lot.”
Damian nodded. He wasn’t sweating yet. He could do this all day. But the ravenous feral anger inside him was still boiling for something to bite.
Bruce straightened and dropped his fighting pose. “Okay, enough. Each of you has proven to be decent at self-defense against larger opponents. If we’re really going to enter Talia’s new compound tonight, you all need to be ready to resist whatever mental tactics she might employ. She knows your weaknesses, am I right?”
Damian growled. It was true. But what could he do about that?
Dick stepped up next to him and ruffled his hair. “Lower your hackles, Dames,” he said. “Bruce, you may be right. Talia has known us all for years. She’s… the source of most of our fears. But how can we prepare to face her?”
“My hope is that you won’t have to. Barbara tells me that there may be other people captive there. Others who have likely been experimented on. Others who need help. Once we get there, we may have to fight off a lot of Talia’s guards. Talia herself is a formidable opponent. If she knows how to get inside your head, it could be especially dangerous for all of you.” Bruce pulled off his gloves thoughtfully. “I may be able to help with that.”
Damian frowned as a new brown bat friend he’d named Melchisidek squeaked from somewhere above. The man is good. Listen to him. Damian wanted to reply, how would you know? but held his tongue for now. So far, Melchisidek hadn’t done anything to make him doubt the creature’s instincts.
Bruce called over the others, who were looking at the message from Barbara with Alfred to help them through the more difficult words. They climbed up to the practice ring and waited expectantly.
“So whatcha got, old man?” Jason said casually. “You know my biggest weakness already. You got some way to avoid pain bullets?”
“Yeah,” Damian said. “It’s called ‘don’t get hit.’”
“Easy for you to say, Squirt. You’re too small for them to even see you. Like a flea.”
Damian lunged for him, but Dick held him back. “Easy now. Let’s hear what he has to say.”
“Yes. First, all of you will be wearing these.” He pulled open a drawer and revealed several sizes of protective black suits that looked remarkably flexible. “They should help stop most of the bullets.” He opened another drawer to reveal some weapons. “Dick, I know you mentioned you have trained with several types of weapons. Have any of the rest of you? Be honest.”
They all nodded. “We’ve all trained with katana, knives, staff, and firearms,” Dick said for the group. “Among a few other miscellaneous items.”
“Then take your pick.”
They gathered around the drawers and rummaged through them. Damian wanted a sword, but Dick told him to be more practical because there wasn’t one small enough for his height. So he took several knives instead. And some throwing stars that looked promising.
He noticed that most of the others took different weapons, as if they wanted to balance each other out. He also noticed that none of the provided weapons were firearms. There was a tazer and a tranq gun, but nothing that would fire actual bullets.
When Jason reached for a knife as well, Dick grabbed his wrist. Damian was close enough to hear him whisper fiercely, “Pick something else.” The two of them glared at each other for a long moment, but Jason finally nodded and went for a hand crossbow instead.
They suited up in the gear Bruce had provided and tested out their chosen weapons. Jason, who had wicked aim, proved to be quite adept with the crossbow, and Dick quickly figured out how to use the electrified escrima sticks to work with his aerial fighting techniques.
Tim picked only a simple bo staff. When Damian raised an eyebrow at him, he just shrugged. “I’m more useful with my mind abilities anyway. This is just for self defense.”
Cass chose the sword that Damian had wanted. She pulled it out of its sheath, checked how sharp it was, and then very deliberately put it back in its sheath. She didn’t practice with it like the others. She didn’t have to.
As Dick practiced flipping over a practice dummy with his sticks, jabbing them into the neck, Bruce approached from the side. Then he suddenly called out, “Why did Talia bring up your parents, Dick?”
Dick faltered in midair and immediately dropped down onto the mat with an oof.
Damian was attacking before he knew what he was doing. He tried to stab Bruce in the back of the leg with one of his new knives.
Bruce expertly stepped aside and slammed his face down into the mat with one hand. The knife tumbled loose from his grasp, and Bruce used his toe to flip it into his other hand.
Damian writhed a moment, then stopped when he realized it was useless. “How dare you say something like that!” he seethed. “Didn’t you learn your lesson with Cass?”
Bruce let him go. “Talia won’t hold back. You need to be stronger in order to withstand her insidious words.”
“I know how to deal with my mother-“ Damian’s eyes grew wide and he choked on the words. He hadn’t meant to admit that to Bruce. “I mean, I-“
“Your mother?” Bruce stared at him until he felt like shriveling up like a woolly caterpillar and never showing his face to the light again. “I see.” What was he thinking behind that impassive, unreadable face? But after a moment, he turned away from Damian and walked over to where Dick was sitting up on the mat, rubbing his head. He offered a hand to him. “Dick, I’m sorry, but you have to block out whatever it is that your parents bring up in your mind. It’s handicapping you.”
Dick let himself be pulled up. “Yeah…”
Damian stalked behind Bruce. “You have no right! You’re-“
Bruce handed him his knife back, hilt first. “And you have to get your emotions under control. If you were in a fight with Talia and she pressed your buttons like that, she could easily overpower you. You clearly have the fighting skills. You just have to maintain some self-control over those… animal instincts.”
Damian’s anger faded, and it was replaced with a sullen sort of frustration. Bruce was right. As much as he hated it, he was absolutely right. He’d always struggled to maintain control over his animal side. It was just always there, lurking beneath the surface. The more he talked to his animal friends, the more he felt like he could just let go of everything human and become one of them. He tried to bury those feelings when he was around his brothers and Cass, but… Ignoring it was unwise. He straightened up and squared his shoulders. “I shall endeavor to keep it under control,” he said stiffly. “I do not want to endanger anyone with my actions.”
Bruce walked over to Tim and put a hand on his shoulder. “And you, I haven’t forgotten about your mental issue with that fit you had earlier. You need to pace yourself.”
Tim nodded but said nothing.
“I know you feel like you have to hold us all together because you’re the one who can help us communicate. But if it comes down to it, I want you to pull out and protect yourself.” He looked around at them all. “That goes for each one of you. No playing hero. You may be trained to fight, but you aren’t nearly ready to go into the field like this. I’m only letting you come so that you can have closure regarding Barbara… and so that I can keep an eye on you.”
Damian took a deep breath. “We’re ready,” he said.
Jason shrugged. “As ready as we can be, at least.”
Cass frowned at the sword in her hands as the others practiced with Bruce in the training area of the cave. She hardly paid them any attention, wholly focused on her chosen weapon. It felt so natural in her hands, like she’d used it all her life. Of course, she had trained with all weapons like the others, but Talia had pushed her especially into using swords. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe she wanted her to be like a copy of herself.
That was probably the case. She was in many ways much like their former captor and trainer. She’d been trained to kill even before Talia brought her into the experiments. Even before her powers, she’d been dangerous.
This was something she’d always daydreamed about on her off time. Even when Talia pushed her to be better, to fight more efficiently, to use her powers, she always imagined one day turning on her. After all, anyone who hurt her brothers did not deserve to live.
And yet, her hands shook briefly. She forced them to still. As much as she wanted to hurt Talia, to turn against her with all the violence she had used in the training ring… What if it got the others hurt in the process?
She didn’t think she could handle it if she was the cause of another catastrophe. Not again.
She’d gotten better at controlling her power, yes, but Bruce was right to question her about her lack of speech. Now that her emotions had calmed down a little, she could see why he’d asked her. The last thing she wanted was to be the cause of Talia getting the better of them.
She bit her lip, still gripping the hilt and sheath. As the others scattered to prepare the rest of their gear and adjust the fit of their protective clothing, she cautiously approached Bruce, who was wiping down the training dummies and picking up debris from the mat. He glanced up as she reached him.
“Cass,” he said solemnly. “I know you can take care of yourself, but I want you to understand that no one is doing this alone.”
No, he didn’t understand. That was what she was afraid of. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
He waited, a curious but patient expression on his face.
She was glad the others were too distracted and far away to notice. “I killed Jason.”
He didn’t react for a long moment. Then he turned all the way toward her. “What are you talking about?”
She gestured at the other end of the cave, where Jason was busy teasing Damian. “I killed him. I screamed. Lost control.”
Bruce still didn’t get it. He was staring at her with his brows furrowed. “Jason is alive.”
“Now.” She couldn’t get the words to work right. “He died. Then Talia killed him more. My fault.”
Bruce hesitated, then gently reached out toward her shoulders. She flinched back and made the arms crossed gesture he’d shown her, and he quickly withdrew. She was relieved that he abided by his word. “Cass, I don’t fully understand. It sounds bad, what you’re saying. Talia put you kids through hell. But I want to help.”
She shook her head. “Dangerous.”
He sighed. “I wish we had more time to help each of you be prepared to face Talia again, but we don’t, do we?”
He leaned back against the nearest railing. “I’m going to need to talk to Jason about this at some point, aren’t I?”
She didn’t meet his gaze. Jason wouldn’t like that. She probably shouldn’t have told Bruce about the dying part. Each of them were tied so closely to the others, that unraveling one could unravel them all. Talia knew this, too. It was better for him to be aware of what they were going to face.
“Listen,” he said in that low, serious tone, “Cass, you don’t have to talk if you’re afraid you’ll hurt us. We can work on that later if you want. But I’ve seen how skilled you are with your powers, and I’m not afraid. I’m willing to trust you. Can you trust yourself?”
She hugged the sword in its sheath and lowered her head so that her short black hair fell in front of her eyes as she thought about it. It had been a long time since she had fully lost control, though there had been many close calls. If she didn’t feel the pressure to speak, perhaps she could keep her powers on a tight leash. At last she nodded.
Bruce gave her a small smile. “Good. Now get ready to go. We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”
Alfred’s lips twitched as he tried to resist the amusement that the sight in the cave brought. Bruce, in full Batman gear, surrounded by five kids of varying sizes, all dressed in black like him. They followed him like a flock of gothic ducklings as he approached the vehicle bay.
He also followed, wanting to see them off properly. “Master Bruce,” he called. “I daresay there are too many of you to fit in the usual vehicle.”
Bruce glanced over at the sleek batmobile. “Yes. But I have other options.” He pressed a remote on his belt and the back garage door opened.
The kids murmured in excitement and awe as a large black van-like vehicle pulled out on its own, dark windows gleaming in the utility lights of the cave. It was not as sleek as the Batmobile, obviously, but it would certainly serve its purpose. The engine revved (Alfred suspected Bruce was enjoying showing off a little), and the kids grinned. Yes, that would do.
As the four boys and the girl piled into the vehicle, Bruce stopped to turn to Alfred. “If any messages come in from Barbara, please inform me right away.”
“Of course, sir.”
“And… I put trackers and heart monitors in each of the kids’ suits. If someone has a panic attack or deviates from our course, it’s highest priority. I don’t want any of them to be put in harm’s way—“
“A bit late for that sir.”
Bruce pressed his lips together and said nothing.
Alfred nodded. “I know. They would have gotten into trouble otherwise, if they had not gone with you. Isn’t this more risky? Putting them right into Talia’s sights again?”
“Yes,” Bruce said simply. “But I don’t know what else to do. And to be quite honest, I have a feeling they may be more equipped for this fight than I am. They know this Talia better than I do.”
“You suspect that this is a different Talia al Ghul?”
“Yes. All the facts point in that direction. Barbara basically confirmed it. She’s from another alternate universe, which explains why Damian says that she changed after she brought him into her experiment complex. She’s apparently his birth mother, but not this Talia.”
“Mother?” Alfred knew the many complex implications of that. He was loathe to voice them.
Bruce knew what he was thinking. “Yes. Another thing to follow up on after all this is over.” He pulled up the cowl and straightened. “I can barely believe any of this is happening.”
Alfred chuckled. “Never thought you’d be a parent so soon, hmm?”
Bruce didn’t take it as a joke. “It isn’t permanent. We’ll have to find them good adoptive parents if their families are gone, as I suspect. Dick confirmed that his are gone. I would guess Talia would hate to leave loose ends for the rest. But Damian might change things.”
It was a puzzle for another night. “Godspeed, sir.”
Bruce nodded once and swept off toward the vehicle, his cape fluttering behind him dramatically. Moments later, the van’s engines roared and they were gone down the tunnel toward the hidden exit.
“Godspeed,” Alfred said again, softly this time. He then turned to wait near the computer bay for the action to begin.
Barbara ducked around a broken door that hung half off its hinges, careful not to dislodge it or cause any of the debris on the floor to rustle. She was thankful that this base was so new, as it meant that Talia had not yet had time to instal security cameras or any other fancy detection software or hardware. Likely the entrances were well guarded, but most of the former military bunker (as that was what she had determined it was) didn’t seem to be occupied yet. Whoever had used this place in the past had abandoned it for many years. A few areas in the ceiling had caved in, allowing small bits of light to trickle in from the surface.
“Too bad I can’t fly,” she muttered. “I’d be out of here in a heartbeat.”
She remembered Tim saying that his oldest brother, Dick, could fly, and she felt a stab of brief jealousy. She shook it off. She had been given a different power, and she was determined to make the most of it.
She’d been hiding out in the halls for hours. She had nearly encountered guards several times. Each time she avoided a confrontation. Sure, she might have electricity flowing through her fingertips, but it would mean getting in close to touch them. And that wasn’t good when your opponent had guns.
She shuddered, remembering the pain drug. That had been the most horrible sensation she had ever felt, and she had no desire to ever repeat it. The thought that Talia had used that pain on the other kids, it was infuriating. She could hardly believe that anyone could be such a monster… if she hadn’t looked the woman in the eyes herself and seen the sheer lack of empathy there.
She looked down at the laptop she’d stolen. She hadn’t heard any of the guards for a while. Maybe she could risk another attempt at sending a message. She quietly placed the computer on a dusty counter and opened it. Thankfully it still had some battery life left, even after being carted around under her arm for hours. As soon as she placed her fingers on the keys, it lit up and she could “tap into” the information directly. She still wasn’t quite sure how she did it, but it was obviously working regardless of her lack of experience. It was natural, like breathing.
She pushed aside her panic and any thoughts about how or why it worked. That didn’t matter at the moment. Later. If she ever got out of this alive, if she was ever sitting on her dad’s couch swaddled in blankets again, or if she even made it out the door of the complex with her wits and health… she could breakdown then. Now she had to become a machine. She had to be one with the machine.
Data streamed through her head. There was information there that she tossed aside, seeking a connection to the internet. Nothing. She was too far away from any hotspots, and there were no cords she could plug in for ethernet. Frustrated, she closed up the laptop. Either she was too far away, or Talia had figured out her power.
Or she just noticed you took a laptop and shut it down to be safe. That was the most logical explanation.
Footsteps echoed in the hall outside. She tucked the laptop under her arm again. She wasn’t sure why she bothered to hang onto it. After all, she’d gotten most of any use she could already. It wasn’t going to suddenly develop an internet connection again.
But all those files about the experiments, the kids, and those others who may or may not still be alive, those were valuable pieces of information. It was a long-shot, but if there really were other captives here, she wanted to get them out.
The door to the room burst open suddenly, and four burly men and a woman in a black assassin’s outfit rushed inside. Talia’s guards had found her.
Panic rooted her to the floor. She couldn’t take on five opponents!
The woman attacked first, moving like a shadow into the dark room, twin knives drawn.
Barbara instinctively dropped the laptop and shoved her bare hand into the woman’s face, avoiding the blades. An electric jolt fizzled out from her fingers into the exposed bit of skin around the assassin’s eyes. She dropped like a stone, and her knives clattered away.
The burly men didn’t hesitate to move in once they saw their comrade fall. One of them raised his gun and fired at her. Pain immediately blossomed in her left thigh. She forced herself to ignore it as she ducked and began to weave. She reached the first man with his gun drawn, and zapped his forearm. He dropped the weapon in pain and surprise.
Then a jab to his throat. He fell back, choking and twitching with the sudden electric shock.
She knocked the knees out from another man. She placed one hand on his neck, shocking him as well. His eyes rolled up and he fell to the floor unconscious.
The pain in her leg was multiplying. She swore silently at the hole in her jeans where the bullet had pierced her thigh. The pain drug was acting fast. She needed to neutralize the other two men before she was incapable of moving. Hopped up on adrenaline, she half ran, half limped over to the dropped gun and snatched it up. One of the men fired at her. She ducked behind one of the counters in the room just in time.
She clutched the gun in her shaking hands, trying to ignore the way her fingers sparked and buzzed with energy. She winced as the wound in her leg throbbed in time with her heartbeat. At least two men were left, and probably more on the way soon. Had they radioed? She couldn’t think clearly enough to remember. She closed her hand around the trigger of the stolen gun and took a gasping breath. She could do this.
She popped her head up just above the edge of the counter and spotted the two men aiming at her with their own weapons. She ducked as they fired again, several times.
This was insane. She forced her aching muscles to obey her. She quickly fired two shots at the looming brutes. One of them grunted, letting her know he was hit. But she didn’t hear him fall, so chances were the pain bullet was taking its time, just as it was with her leg.
She blinked away the flickering spots in her vision and forced herself to focus.
Footsteps, and then one of the men groped around the edge of the counter with a gloved hand.
She shot it. The hand withdrew and unintelligible shouting followed.
The pain had spread to her chest now. She found it harder and harder to breathe. Still, she managed to crawl a few feet away further behind the counter. From her new vantage point, she saw the two men regroup. They limped around the end of the counter. She aimed the gun and tried to fire it again. Either it was out of ammunition, or something had gotten jammed, because it only clicked.
“You get her! I saw what she did to the others!”
“Then you be the one to tell Talia that I’m dead! You have rounds left, give me your gun, I’ll shoot her.”
“Talia wanted her conscious!”
Barbara rolled her eyes, exasperated even through her pain. “Tell you what, if I come peacefully, will you stop bickering?” She raised her shaking wrists in surrender.
The two men, obviously struggling with their own pain, crept closer warily. “No sudden moves, now,” one of them said.
It was hard not to roll her eyes. These thugs couldn’t be normal-quality assassins. They didn’t have the brains for that. As soon as they were within reach, Barbara lunged for them with her bare hands. Her fingers brushed skin at their necks, and electricity immediately entered their bodies, freezing them in its voltage.
She let go and they dropped to the floor, their clothes smoking slightly. She quickly rummaged through their pockets to see if they had any of the fabled antidote that Talia had teased her with not so long ago. Her search turned up nothing of the sort, just some knives, extra pain bullets (which she pocketed), and one communicator between all of them. She eyed the communicator warily. If these guards woke up, they would immediately radio Talia and inform her of her powers. No, better to delay them as much as possible. She gingerly picked up the communicator, intending to destroy it.
Her power flared up and she felt that “connection” click with the device instead.
“No no no!” She gasped and fell silent as static echoed from the reciever. The red light blinked on. Talia could be listening. She held her breath, frozen with pain and fear. She had to turn it off before—
“Report.” Talia’s voice was firm and maybe a little bored.
Too late. No use trying to hide now. She stood a little straighter. “I’ve incapacitated your men,” she announced, trying to sound bolder than she felt. “If you wish to keep them alive, you’ll tell me where all the exits are.”
Not that she intended to actually leave yet. She just had to get Talia’s goons out of her way.
“Well, if it isn’t our dear test subject!” Talia practially purred. “The prodigal daughter, eager to return to my arms!”
Barbara gritted her teeth. “Just tell me!” She could hardly think anymore. Her whole body ached and lights swam in her vision. The pain would take her if she wasn’t careful to stay awake.
Talia tsked her tongue. “Now, this is interesting. I could give you the locations of the exits, but then where would the fun of hunting you down myself be?”
“I’m sure you’ve got bigger things to worry about than me,” Barbara spat. “You have other test subjects, don’t you?”
“Of course, but none of them are quite so invigorating. Besides, with the other Meta subjects gone, you’re my precious proof that my special concoction has been purified.”
Barbara waited, not sure she was understanding everything Talia was implying. Yes she had other test subjects, but they didn’t seem to be Metas. She was angry that Tim and the others had gotten away. And she wanted Barbara back, because she was some kind of evidence in support of a twisted hypothesis? Her pain-addled brain muddied her ability to process these bits of information.
“But,” Talia continued. “As I am feeling generous, let’s make this a fair game, shall we? I’ll tell you where the nearest exits are located, my little enigma. My men will meet you there. Let us see how far you can get. Perhaps you’ll even reveal what new power you’ve unlocked for me, hmm?”
Dick bolted out of the vehicle the moment Bruce put it in park. He spun around in the forested clearing. No sign of civilization anywhere. “You really think this is the right spot?”
Bruce—no, Batman—exited the driver seat. “These are the coordinates that Barbara sent. There is an abandoned military bunker not far from here. My guess is that Talia has taken it over for her new base.”
Dick didn’t ask how Bruce knew any of that. He jumped into the air, hovering about six feet off the ground. “I’m going to take a quick peek up there.” He pointed toward the treetops.
“Be careful,” was Tim’s cautious warning in his head.
He looked down and saw his second youngest brother leaning on his bo staff, eyes unreadable behind his new mask. “Aren’t I always?” He winked and flew higher before Tim could roll his eyes.
Despite his intense curiosity about their surroundings, he did exercise caution as he poked his head up above the canopy of leaves. He blinked in the evening sunlight. How was it possible that the sky could be so bright? He still couldn’t believe that he’d been missing it all the time he was in those underground tunnels. He never wanted to leave the warmth of the sunshine again.
The light didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Just scattered trees, some rolling hills, and distant radio towers. Behind him, he saw some smoke from the power plant they’d passed on the two lane road on their way here.
He dropped back down to the soft forest floor, and bounced lightly on the balls of his feet. “Nothing seems obviously out of order,” he said cheerfully. “Where’s this bunker you mentioned?”
Bruce turned toward him and Dick almost flinched. He wasn’t used to the blank gaze of Batman under his cowl. It had an unnerving effect. He reminded himself that this was the same man who’d comforted him in Talia’s freezer. The same man who’d helped his brothers and sister escape captivity. If anyone could be trusted, it was him.
He sure hoped he was right about that.
“There should be an entrance a short walk in that direction,” Bruce said, pointing straight ahead. “Talia may know we are coming, so be prepared to fight our way through.”
Dick nodded and unsheathed his twin escrima sticks. The others readied their own assorted weapons. He eyed Jason warily. He seemed completely focused on the mission, rather than considering any harmful actions toward himself. Hopefully it would stay that way.
As they all followed Bruce through the underbrush, Dick floated behind, taking up the rear and musing about what they were about to do. He wondered what Barbara must be like to have made such an impression on them all that they would even risk facing Talia again to get her out of there. What if it was a trap? Well, actually, it probably was a trap. That was beside the point. But Barbara was real, and she was still in there. For some reason, he was letting them all go back into danger for her sake.
Cass dropped behind and caught Dick’s eye. She slung her sword’s sheath back over her shoulder and signed, You worry too much, stop.
“I know,” he huffed. “I can’t help it. It’s my job to worry about all of you.”
She shook her head, but turned to keep trekking after the others without further comment.
A few minutes later, Batman stopped and they followed his example. He pointed out a cave-like arch in the hill, where a metal door hung half-open. It was blocked by a mossy boulder that had likely collapsed from the cave ceiling some time ago. The entrance looked abandoned, but of course appearances could be deceiving.
The gap in the door was not big enough for a fully-grown adult to fit. Damian, Tim, and Cass could probably fit through. Jason definitely wouldn’t. Dick didn’t think he could fit either.
“So,” he whispered, floating closer to the group. “Plan?”
Bruce looked at Cass. “Think you can move that boulder? Quietly?”
She sized it up. Then she signed, Need juice.
Tim linked up their minds to translate for Bruce. “She needs to tap into a strong emotion to do it. This could take a minute.”
Cass sat crosslegged in the undergrowth, facing the blocked door. They waited, alert for any sign of trouble. Dick and Jason automatically took up positions on either side of Cass, protecting her while she was so vulnerable.
Dick fretted silently. Cass sometimes needed external help to get in the right frame of mind for stuff like this. It wasn’t easy to summon up the intensity needed. Every moment they stayed in one place, the likelihood of being discovered increased.
Cass opened her eyes and looked at him pointedly. Her glare said everything. They were still linked up mentally via Tim, and his worry was getting transmitted telepathically, distracting her.
He winced. “Sorry. Shutting up.” He forced his emotions to empty, allowing her to focus.
A moment later, the boulder shifted. Some dirt tumbled free. They all held their breath.
Then Cass grinned. She raised her arms, and the boulder pulled away from the door, bringing a trail of roots and moss with it. She lowered it to the side of the doorway with a soft thump.
“How’d you do it?” Dick asked her, impressed by her newfound level of control.
She signed simply, Good thoughts.
Jason snorted at that, but made no comment. He led the way into the doorway, ignoring Bruce’s hand signals that he should wait. Dick rolled his eyes and trotted after Bruce. He gave Cass a thumbs up as he went past her. She beamed in response.
The bunker had been abandoned for so long that part had collapsed, letting in dirt and patches of filtered light. Moss covered parts of the floor, and even some mushrooms grew in clumps around them. Further up, the tunnel turned dark and foreboding.
“Careful,” Tim said to the whole group. “There could be traps ahead.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jason said. “That’s why I’m the one in front, smartypants.”
Dick shivered. Traps were not something he was excited about. Talia was here, somewhere in the maze of hidden tunnels. Her traps could be nasty.
“Damian,” Bruce said, stopping suddenly. “What is it?”
Dick turned and realized Damian was right beside him, sniffing the air. He’d been so quiet he hadn’t noticed.
“I smell something wrong. It smells like explosives by the door.”
Not good. Dick snatched up both Damian and Tim and flew straight ahead. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bruce pull Cass forward as well. Jason darted back from his place in the lead, spreading his arms toward the entrance they’d just come through as if to form a human shield.
Tim shifted free of some loose rocks, coughing on dust. He heard whispers, so he stifled his coughing in order to listen.
“Did you hear that? I think he’s close!”
“Shh, not so loud!”
He relaxed. It was only Dick and Damian. He tried to reach out mentally, but something twinged in his head. Yikes. He shut down his mental ability before it could trigger a fit. “Dick!” he whispered hoarsely. “I’m here!”
He pulled an arm free of the rubble. He couldn’t see anything in the pitch darkness.
A moment later, Dick was hovering above him. “Timmy! When we couldn’t talk mentally I was afraid for you. I’m glad you’re okay. Are you hurt at all?”
“I don’t think so, just stuck. Help me out?”
Dick grabbed his free arm and tugged.
Tim tumbled out to a dusty floor. “So there were traps, huh?” he said sullenly.
“Right again, little bro.” Dick ruffled his hair. “We should have let you assess it first.”
Damian cleared his throat. “If you’ll recall, I was the one who sensed the danger.”
“Good job,” Tim muttered sarcastically. “Saved us a lot of trouble.”
Before Damian could explode, Dick stepped in. “Can you link us up with the others? I want to make sure they’re okay.”
“Maybe,” he said, rubbing his sore head. He didn’t want to try it yet.
Damian tensed. “I hear them!” He scrambled off toward the rock pile.
“Are his senses getting sharper?” Tim asked. “Or does he have some critter friends helping him?”
Dick squeezed his shoulder in answer. The truth was that Damian’s powers certainly could be evolving. Tim had always suspected that the kid’s meta powers extended farther than just communing with animals, especially with how he seemed to practically transform into a wild beast himself whenever he got angry. What if he could learn to control that? How far could he go with that? He pushed those thoughts aside. They could figure that out later.
Even in the darkness, Damian seemed to know where to step without stumbling. Dick hovered above the ground, and Tim bumbled his way over the uneaven footing without complaint.
A few small rocks suddenly flew out from the center of the pile of rubble.
“Get down!” Dick hissed, and pulled Tim and Damian with him.
A few larger rocks crashed around them, and then they heard Bruce’s voice. “Is everyone else safe? Cass is here with me.” A light flashed on, revealing Batman’s cowled face. Even under the mask, his face looked pale and worried.
Dick hopped up again. “I’ve got Tim and Dames. Where’s Jason?”
They all froze, listening.
Tim’s heart sank. He’d seen how Jason had pushed his way back toward the entrance, knowing that it was about to explode. He closed his eyes and focused, trying to push back the rising panic. Can’t lose control now, he told himself firmly. Jason. Where’s Jason?
He reached out his mind, searching for the familiar contact of his older brother. At first, he sensed nothing, and his imagination jumped to some awful conclusions. No, no, he had to be alive… There! He sensed the faintest flicker of pain, near the base of the rubble pile.
“He’s in there!” he exclaimed. “Help me dig him out!”
Cass put a hand on his chest. “No,” she said calmly. “Me.” She gestured toward the rocks and gently lifted five big pieces from the pile with her powers. She set them aside.
Tim ached to hurry her along. He didn’t dare, however, because if Jason was really trapped under there, the last thing he needed was the rocks to shift and crush him further. Cass knew what she was doing, though he sensed her anxiety as well.
At last, she lifted two large boulders, and Bruce’s light revealed Jason’s dusty, blood-covered face.
Dick flew close to check for breath. “He’s alive,” he said. “But I don’t like the sight of all this blood.”
Something else was tickling at the back of Tim’s mind. He cocked his head to the side, reaching out mentally around them. He gulped. “Guys, we’ve got company!”
Batman moved first. He jumped in front of them all and slammed someone back with a gauntleted fist. Six more shadows emerged from deeper in the tunnel. Cass joined Bruce with her sword at the ready.
So Talia had sent her assassins after them. They’d probably heard the explosion and came running. Wonderful. “And our best defense aside from Cass is down for the count,” Tim muttered.
“Heard that,” came a moan from below.
“Jason!” Dick gasped. “How are you still conscious?”
“Y’know… heal fast.” Despite his words, Jason’s eyes remained closed.
Tim pulled on his eldest brother’s arm. “You gotta help Bruce,” he said. “I’ll watch Jason.”
Dick gave them a worried look, then flew off to join the fight.
“Stay awake,” Tim ordered. “We don’t want you sleeping off all this healing yet.”
Tim sat on the pile of rubble next to him and closed his own eyes. He focused his mental energy on the fight, sensing the movements and surface thoughts of each of the combatants. From Bruce he still sensed next to nothing, which was a little scary. From Dick, desperation and loyalty to his family. From Cass, anger at the situation and concern for Jason. From Damian, rage and also a surprising amount of fear. From the assassins he got determination and a smug satisfaction that they were successfully detaining them until Talia could show up.
Tim linked up their minds as they fought. “We have to go before Talia arrives!”
“Easy for you to say,” Damian retorted as he tackled an assassin’s legs, biting and stabbing with his knives. “You’re not even helping.
“I’m helping by letting you know we have to go NOW!” Tim struggled to lift Jason’s arm over his shoulders. He winced as Jason’s head lolled to the side and bumped against the wall.
“Ouchiecakes,” Jason said, his snarky tone carrying across their minds.
More assassins were arriving now. “We need a path through!” he shouted, not bothering with the mental link.
Cass stepped into the midst of the attacking assassins and sent the nearest bunch flying with a burst of telekinetic energy. She gestured at the opening to an intersection in the tunnels.
Dick helped Tim shuffle Jason along as quickly as possible while Damian and Bruce continued to fight the men off.
“Good thing these aren’t high-level assassins,” Tim mused as they rushed forward. “Seems like we stumbled on a pack of initiates.”
Just then, half a dozen more assassins spilled into the corridor ahead of them. These wore the black armband that signified high-level assassins.
“Please stop saying stupid things, Timbo,” Jason complained. “It’s like you’re begging to be proven wrong.”
“We’re cut off!” Tim thought frantically to the others.
Batman grunted behind them. “I’m coming, hang on.”
Dick dropped Jason’s arm and surged forward with his escrima sticks sparking. He jumped into the air above the first black-clad ninja and sailed neatly over his head, twisting to avoid being grabbed. He landed in the midst of the group.
“It’s too many,” Tim panicked. “I need to help him!”
He couldn’t just leave Jason, though. He still couldn’t stand upright without help. Cass rushed up beside them, her face pale in the faint light. She tapped Tim’s shoulder, signifying her worry.
He looked back, seeing what she was afraid of. Even more assassins had arrived from behind, and Bruce was busy fending them off with Damian’s help. “Where are they even coming from?”
Dick suddenly cried out. Tim whipped back around to see him drop one of his sticks and crash into a wall. One of the assassins had grabbed his leg and pulled him down from the air.
Cass sprinted toward him, but then she froze. She couldn’t easily blast the men out of the way when Dick was surrounded by them. She couldn’t control her powers that precisely in a fight like this. She didn’t want to risk hurting Dick.
It wasn’t looking good. Tim’s heart clenched at the vulnerable position his eldest brother was in. Dick scooted back, holding his remaining stick at the ready. There were just too many enemies, and with the rest of them occupied or unable to rush in, Tim feared that Dick would not get out of this unscathed.
A couple of the assassins drew guns, probably to fire pain bullets at Dick.
Jason grunted and shifted his opposite arm to draw his hand crossbow. He raised it in a shaking hand and fired before Tim could stop him.
One of the attackers fell, probably dead. Still more crowded around Dick. A few broke off to stalk toward Tim and Jason. Any second now they would open fire with pain bullets and it would be over.
Cass screamed and sent several of them tumbling. It wasn’t enough. There were just too many…
“Hey jerks! I’m the one you want!” A young woman stepped out of the deeper shadows of the hall beyond. Tim gawked. She had bright red hair and green eyes that flashed in determination. He reached out to brush her consciousness. Pain. It swamped him. He winced and dropped Jason, who yelped in alarm.
He quickly blocked her out. She was suffering from the pain drug. It was too risky to try to speak to her mentally in case the pain incapacitated him. Yet she somehow walked tall. He barely had a chance to think about it.
He swung his staff to fend off a female high-level assassin with a knife as she lunged to stab toward Jason. It was probably coated with the pain drug, knowing Talia’s methods. He slammed the butt of his staff into her temples and she crumpled at last.
“Stars,” Jason breathed, and Tim looked up.
The red-haired woman had grabbed one of the assassins by the face with her bare hand. She did something and the man’s whole body went stiff and twitched like he’d been struck by a powerful electric shock. He fell at her feet even as she grabbed another assailant and did the same. The air crackled around her. Her hair stood out from her head with static electricity.
She cleared a path to Dick, and the two of them pushed back the rest of the assassins until they were lined up down the hall, right in the path of Cass.
Cass took a deep breath and yelled. The remaining assassins lifted into the air and were slammed down on the concrete floor with a terrifying amount of force. Most of them stayed down, unconscious. The rest writhed with the wind knocked out of them or worse.
Tim and Cass picked up Jason again and helped him stumble over to Dick and the girl.
“Thanks,” Dick breathed, bending over to catch his breath. “I guess I owe you one.”
“Yup,” she said. She flexed her hand and held it out to him.
Dick only blinked at the offered arm, probably still remembering how she’d zapped half a dozen men with her bare palms. “Uh, who are you?”
Tim nearly vibrated with recognition. “It’s Barbara! But what did you just do?”
She grinned. “You found me! And I saved your sorry butts, that’s what.”
By the time Bruce had finished knocking out the last few assassins with Damian’s surprisingly efficient help, he realized that his little troupe had expanded. “Barbara,” he said gruffly as he joined them. The others viewed her with a bit of awe, and he wondered what exactly he’d missed.
She squinted at him. “You got my message?”
He nodded. “What else have you learned?”
“Can’t we do this on the road?” Dick said, sounding almost hesitant. “We found Barbara, let’s go find a way out of here.”
Bruce held up a gloved hand to quiet him.
Barbara straightened, seemingly understanding what he was asking. “There are others here somewhere. I don’t think they’re Metas, but Talia is planning something big for them. She’s not from this world, you know? She has a device that can send her back. It sounds like the cost of that power will be her prisoners’ lives.”
He held back a groan of frustration. This was not something he wanted to get involved in with kids in tow. He had to get them away to safety before he came back to deal with Talia’s twisted plan. “I’ll handle Talia once you kids are out of harm’s way.”
“Heck no,” Barbara snarled. “I’m not going anywhere yet. Talia could be planning to leave tonight. We have to stop her now.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Barbara—“
“Don’t ‘Barbara’ me!” She swayed as she pointed at his face. He realized suddenly she was struggling against a dose of Talia’s pain drug. She’d hidden it relatively well until now. “We aren’t going to have another chance to do something about this, so we need to act. And if you won’t, I will.”
“You’re in no position to help.”
“Shut up!” She was sweating now. Her brow firmed into a stubborn line. “I’m trying to tell you that I can help. I might be the only one who can do anything, really. But I need your help. All of you.” She looked around at the others. Great, she was going to try to turn all of them into heroes now. They didn’t have the training, and she clearly wasn’t thinking straight—
“What clever thing are you planning?” Tim asked suddenly, surprising both of them.
She actually grinned at him. “When I tapped into the system, I managed to learn quite a bit about how the inter-dimensional portal is supposed to work. While Talia thinks she needs to use human lives to power it, we have a secret power source she doesn’t know about. We can send her back to her universe on our own terms.”
Even Bruce was having trouble following her logic. “What power source are you talking about?”
Her grin widened and she narrowed her eyes slyly. “Me.”
There should be only one more chapter left (and maybe an epilogue). It will probably take a month or so to finish and edit, but I'm committed to finishing this AU well!