Ultimate Knights #10: The Burning City Jan 16, 2016 22:40:37 GMT -5
Post by Drake on Jan 16, 2016 22:40:37 GMT -5
#10: The Burning CityBy Drake and Adrini
Batwing stood across from St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital atop a gargoyle. Suited up, the hero gazed with clouded eyes at the entrance. It had been hours, and still nothing. He pulled up the hospital’s database on his heads up display. Cullen Row, floor two, room 12. Comatose due to brain trauma. Stable.
Batwing resisted the urge to shout. Where was Harper? She should be by her brother’s side. Then again, he should. He should wait there, not here. How long would he be allowed to stay, though? He had no proof he was family. Was he family?
Batwing reached to the back of his utility belt and opened a near-empty pouch, the only one of its kind on his belt. From it, he produced a small picture—a selfie—of Harper, Cullen, and he on Christmas Day, less than a year ago, in his penthouse apartment. Cullen was bright and playful as usual, both holding the camera and putting up bunny ears behind his sister. A small Santa hat hung lopsidedly off his head. Harper had managed a toothless smile. That girl…even when she was happy she looked like she was faking it. And Batwing? He’d smiled. He never smiled. Maybe that’s why he and Harper had connected so quickly.
Batwing sighed and placed the picture back in his belt. So much had changed so quickly. Harper had joined a cult. Cullen was comatose. Batwing was all alone, but that’s not why he was here. He cared about the kids, and he would save them…her.
He would save Harper.
Something—someone—caught Batwing’s eye: Harper, with two unusual boys. The girl sprinted straight through the hospital’s entrance, the boys lagging behind.
Batwing steadied himself and then slipped into the alley below. There, he changed into more appropriate clothing, and followed the children into the hospital.
Batwing would save Harper.
He had to.
“CULLEN!” Harper yelled as she pushed through the crowded halls of St. Mary’s to locate her brother’s room. She hadn’t waited on instructions from Gar and Aaron, and the two boys were left to scurry after her.
“Excuse me, miss—“ A nurse began, after being pushed to the side. Harper ignored her.
“Sorry, real sorry. Excuse us,” Gar offered, as he too passed the nurse.
When Aaron did the same, he accidentally knocked her into a wall. He threw back a concerned look, but didn’t apologize. The nurse normally would’ve scolded the teens, but held back, far too exhausted to muster the anger required. Plus, she knew what the city was going through. Before the gang war had begun, ‘Haven had been far from a clean city. Now? Everyone was suffering.
“Should’ve listened to Mom and moved back to Smallville,” the nurse grumbled, getting back to work.
Elsewhere, near the end of the hall, Harper finally found her brother’s room. She stormed in; not one of the busy doctors and nurses on staff gave her the time of day.
The sight Harper discovered would have driven her to begin a violent streak on the spot. She could even hear Jock’s voice in the back of her mind, egging her on, but she took a deep breath, thought of the comatose boy before her, and remained in control.
A newfound tenderness in her eyes, Harper stepped over to her brother’s bedside and ran a hand over his forehead, as she had done so many times before whenever Cullen had been sick. The boy’s head felt like a burnt piece of toast—hot, dry, and brittle. She couldn’t be sure how much was in her head, but she swore she knew Cullen was dying.
This isn’t the sort of thing you recover from, Harper grimly thought. She sighed, burned the image of her brother into her brain, and stepped back.
A few moments later, Gar and Aaron finally made it to the room. They’d been stopped outside by a paranoid doctor that suspected Gar—a Changeling—and the costumed Aaron were Black Masks—just their luck. When they entered Cullen’s room, they discovered it was empty. However, the window was open. It didn’t take long to put two and two together.
Gar resisted the urge to punch something, a primal animalistic urge to lash out gnawing at him. “We lost her. God dammit, we lost her.”
Aaron hadn’t been the one to reply. The new arrival was neither hospital personnel nor a victim of the gang war. He stood at six-and-a-half feet tall, a giant to the two boys, and his presence imposed the same awe as his height. Dark-skinned, his hair cut short, dressed in an expensive suit, and black sunglasses covering his eyes, the man looked at Gar with curiosity. However, there was something in the way the man asked the question. To Gar, it seemed as if he already knew the answer.
“Who are you?” Gar wondered.
“A man who doesn’t care that you’re a Changeling or that your friend is a superhero. A man who can relate. A man who does care immensely about the boy over there and his sister,” he replied.
Aaron stepped forward, not even remotely intimidated by the imposing man. “Give us a straight answer—“
“Nightjay aka Aaron Langstrom, son of Kirk Langstrom, a first-generation member of the Outlaws. I know who you are, but you,” the man addressed Gar, “Are new.”
Aaron and Gar shared a worried look, but didn’t yet resort to violence. They were in a hospital after all.
“I’m Gar Logan,” the green-skinned boy, half-nervous and half-curious, said, “You?”
The man looked at Cullen, took a deep breath, and then said, “You may call me Batwing.”
“I knew it,” Gar muttered.
“Bat-who?” Aaron looked at Gar. “Listen, I know a Batwoman. A few of ‘em, actually. I know Batgirls, and I know a Batman. I don’t know a Batwing.”
“He’s from Detroit. He’s Harper’s mentor,” Gar explained, looking at the man, “Right?”
“His name is Cameron Snow; he’s a billionaire,” Gar blurted.
“What?” Aaron excitedly exclaimed, wide-mouthed.
“Cullen…” Batwing grumbled knowingly. He continued before the boys could, “Please, Gar, Aaron, tell me about Cullen and Harper. Is Harper still…?”
“First you’ve gotta explain how you know me,” Aaron retorted, before thinking better of it and saying, “Wait, am I famous?”
Batwing gave Aaron an obscured but all too readable look, but the boy wouldn’t stand down. Gar had to quiet him, and he did so by speaking.
“The quickie?” Gar glanced to his side, “Man, that sounded weird. Anyway, Harper’s gone full Red Hood psycho, Cullen got knocked into a coma by this crime boss Bane, and we basically have no idea what to do.”
“Hm. And where is Harper now?”
Gar looked at Aaron, who shrugged. The green-skinned boy returned his gaze to the veteran hero before him. “I think…I think she’s gone back to Scarlet.”
“The Red Hood’s city. It’s in the old subway system,” Gar explained.
Batwing nodded, but remained contemplative. He didn’t attempt to hide his frustration, regret, or fear, but he did control it. He needed to act now.
“Thank you, boys. Please, continue to care for Cullen to the best of your ability,” Batwing said.
“Where are you going?” Gar asked, although he already knew the answer, as Batwing began to walk away.
The hero stopped in his tracks for but a moment to look back at the boys, and said simply, “Scarlet. I must save Harper.”
The Gym was incredibly busy, more than it had been for some time. Walking in with Robby on his hip, Oliver saw Roy training up the younger ones while Ted was training the ones with more experience. A few fighters were sitting on the sidelines, nursing injuries. They had just finished their round in the ring.
“Robby!” Thea, who had been leading warm ups, ran over and smiled at the little boy. Taking him, she looked at her brother, worried. “How are they?”
“Alive. Di wanted me to remind you to keep with your appointments or she’ll attend them with you.” Robby was grabbing her necklace, a nursing one that Di left behind when she was pulled into the mess in ‘Haven. “It’s temping.”
“Yeah, it is. You need something.” Thea knew her brother well enough to know he had more on his mind than just his missing wife.
“Ted, and it’s important. You think he can be pulled away?” He asked and Thea looked over. She nodded and leaned into the ring, where Ted was ‘training’ his current kid into fine powder. The man stopped at her interruption and she pegged in, Thea putting the students into her own workout.
“What do you need, boyo?” The man said gruffly, now holding Robby instead.
“A favor or two.” He nodded for Ted to follow him into the office. “I need you to go to ‘Haven, just for a while. There are things I need updates on, and you can dig them out. Di would but she’d keeping her cover and it doesn’t leave much time. You know the ins better than us.”
“What are you asking, kid? Be clear.” Ted stopped, the unspoken secret they both had to live with hanging between them.
“We both know why she’s there, why they all are. And I know you hate her being there as much as I do.” Ted’s features made it clear that was true. “She needs to restart the team, but more than that she needs to come home. You know the people she needs to bring back; to her they are names on a page. If the two of you two team up-“
“I’ll need a cover, boyo. That’s not home anymore.” Ted gave the kid back to his father. He couldn’t argue.
“You have a gym. I think that’ll be enough.” Oliver put his hat back on, and stopped his son from pulling on his beard, as he turned to the door. “Come back alive, Ted. Both of you, and home. No less.”
“Wait, you have how many people out?” Dick could barely believe it.
“Nearly half the city by now.” Dinah handed over a small print out, a summary. “There’s been some headache in resettling them but it’s worked out so far. We’ve also been gathering intel on the gangs and various power bases. Not a complete picture yet but we use it to know what area is safe to empty out next, so it’s enough for us. It gets people out of harm’s way.”
“Are they okay?” Sitting down, Dick was looking at the numbers. There were over seventeen outward houses like this one. The gangs might be getting some people but the bulk of those disappearing were going out this way.
“No feather beds, but taken care of with four squares a day and doctors on hand if needed.” Babs pulled up map of what looked to be a summer camp. “We’re basing it on an old federal program that worked out really well in the thirties. It’s half camping and half settling. But yeah, they’re good.”
“Are we even doing something like this? Is Father? Is the United States government?” Damian asked, looking at the map.
“I guess this is where I ask how I can help,” Dick said, shaking his head that, no, they weren’t. The situation was complicated, and these women were special.
“There are a few areas we’re having trouble getting people out of…maybe a distraction?”
Di, Dinah Queen no less, was Black Canary. It explained how this whole thing was being paid for. Kate Kane he had known was Batwoman. The dark haired Asian woman was Jade, also known as Cheshire. She watched more then she spoke, but she did pay attention.
“The firefighters around here, they can move to pull people away, can’t they?” Babs asked.
“Yes, they can. Brilliant idea.” The famous Mrs. Queen was typing up information, and looking, she saw Babs send over codes to make communications easier later. “I’ll be a few; why don’t you give him the tour?”
Babs got up and Jade took her place, offering areas that needed evacuation ASAP. Walking out of the room, he saw a few framed pictures. They must have been from Queen Manor. Babs was in most of them as they helped her get her mobility back – she looked happy. This was who she had been with.
“There are four main areas, but it’s pretty quick. The idea is to get them in the records, get them checked out, supplied and rested, then out. Takes one to two days depending on how hurt someone is or if they are still looking for a family member or friend.” Babs, now in normal clothing, was talking softly as they walked into the hallway. “The other houses keep records as well, so if a family has gotten separated we’re pretty good about fixing it. And we have a list of people and pets we keep an eye out for. We do what we can.”
“Who are they?” Damian pointed at one of the attendants in the house.
“Untouchables, the good police.”
“I didn’t know there was such a thing in ‘Haven,” Dick muttered.
Ignoring him, she continued, “They do the grunt work. The Birds and I keep an eye out and try to find out where it’s safe to pull from.” She waved at the woman, a fit black officer with a pronounced scar on her arm, who smiled a little and waved back. “They’ve all been through hell, but who here hasn’t? It’s like a requirement or something. And it goes without saying that this whole thing is top secret. Not even the government knows, for obvious reasons.” He knew, yeah: corruption. “Can you handle that?”
“Babs, look at me. I’m Nightwing. Hell yeah I can,” Dick retorted, causing the redhead to smile slightly.
“Tt. And you say I’m narcissistic,” Damian said under his breath.
“Well, good. We could use your help,” Babs admitted.
“And I could use yours. But you start. What do you need?” Dick asked.
“I could use a moment alone with you, Dick,” came a husky, harsh, all too familiar voice.
The trio turned to discover Bruce in disguise, mustached and dressed like a mobster. He glared at his ex-protégé, who confidently returned the gaze in kind.
“Bruce?” Babs wondered, looking between the two tall, dark-eyed men.
“Father,” Damian agreed, aware of the reasoning behind his father’s arrival in Blüdhaven.
“Don’t even start, Damian. You’re next,” Bruce warned.
Dick looked at Babs, who was beginning to pick up on the subtle clues, and motioned away with his head. She nodded, and walked off, giving the boys some room.
“You too, Damian,” Bruce said.
The belligerent boy merely crossed his arms. Dick’s lips flicked up for a moment into a smirk, but he quickly darkened his expression, scowling.
“We stay. Both of us. No jokes. No BS. Just talk,” Dick said.
Bruce looked between the two, and, realizing they were set in their decisions, began, “Fine. I’ll start. What the hell, Dick?”
Bruce rarely cursed. He had told Dick it was a weakness out in the field and in real life. It made you seem vulnerable, which Dick had recognized all too well to mean it made you seem human. Bruce wanted to be greater than a man. If he had begun to break down, it meant he was really pissed.
“You wanted me to watch Damian, so I did. I brought him with me. Listen, Gotham’s great, but I’m a circus kid. I’m used to travelling. I don’t get too attached to any one place. ‘Haven’s my own as much as any other city is, and I’ve got people I care about here,” Dick began to explain, before Bruce interrupted him, slowly losing control.
Red-faced, he said, “So you ignore my direct orders, jump headfirst into a warzone with no prior planning, and bring the boy with you?!”
“Yes, yes, and really? Give Damian some respect,” Dick said, causing the boy to smile. “He’s your-“
“My son, I know. And he’s thirteen,” Bruce said.
“Funny. Remind me again when I first put on a mask and cape? Thirteen, was it?” Dick retorted.
“I am fully trained,” Damian insisted. “I am ready to be a hero.”
“To be Robin,” Dick finished.
Damian rolled his eyes. “To be a hero.”
“Robin,” Dick added.
“For the last time, the name is childish and insipid.”
“Enough!” Bruce roared, frustration building. Both of his sons shot back furious stares. He recognized that look. It wasn’t just a teenager’s angry mask, but his own. Something softened in Bruce. “You’re set on this? Both of you?”
“Yes,” both replied simultaneously. They looked at one another and smiled slightly.
“I’m not going to lie. Damian’s a spoiled brat,” Dick admitted.
“And Grayson is a man-child,” Damian interjected.
“But I think this will work out,” Dick finished. “At least until ‘Haven’s calmed down.”
“…Understood.” Bruce turned away. “Know I do not agree with your decisions, but I will not fight you any further. And know…” He breathed quietly. “That my resources are at your disposal.”
With that, he began to leave. No one spoke for a moment, before Dick finally managed to.
“Nice ‘stache,” the former Boy Wonder said, grinning.
Turned away, Bruce smiled slightly, and nodded. “Please give Barbara my best.”
With that, the Batman was gone.
“She tries anything, we’re out.” Kate was not happy to be where she was, but none of them were.
Jade, responding to a summons to tea, had pulled in her sisters to help make sure that she would be seen again after the meeting. With who she was going to see it was impossible to be sure.
They walked the curtained hallway, still voices behind the tapestries, and into the tea room. Formal business was conducted in the tea room. Formal business was never going to be a good thing, something Di new all too well. If this didn’t involve Jade she never would have been here. As it was she was barely staying calm.
It was the same room, the seti in the center and the barely seen servants close in case their mistress needed to be served. Jade could feel her sisters behind her, watching for the slightest threat, but arrived in the room. Shiva was there, but she wasn’t resting lazily and sipping tea. She was hurt, badly.
Her mother’s daughter, even with the strains, Jade rushed forward to the woman. There were few guards and they didn’t try to stop her, Shiva herself didn’t seem to be fully aware.
“Di, Di, c’mon! Look!” Jade was upset, and for good reason. Shiva had gotten some medical care but the wide gut wound and bullet were not sealed.
“Who the hell gutted Shiva?” Kate looked in shock. It was unthinkable but she was looking at it. “It’s not possible.”
“No one can fake that internal damage.” Di was at the seti and looking at the wound. “We move her out or she’s gone for good. And if she got hurt here I’m guessing getting help isn’t going to happen.”
“Okay, let’s take a step back for a second.” By her expression, it was clear Kate was not entirely upset with the situation. “We leave her here and never have to deal with her again. I think that’s an option we need to seriously consider.”
“Kate!” Jade was now really upset, her mother’s breathing shallow. “Di, I know what she’s done-“
“She saved me.” Di said, earning her a sharp glance from Kate. “And this is something we can hang over her head. We’ve twisted less to our advantage. It’s her mother, Bats. She’s the last one of us to have one. After this we’re down to your Dad.”
“She owes us; she owes us major – and this time she pays up! I’m talking ‘we snap, she runs.’ No excuses.” Kate was looking at both of them, making her point clear.
“Agreed, she owes us major. No excuses, does what we say.” Jade was waving to the servants. “Mrs. Lance’s house, do you still remember it? Fast, we’ll call ahead for evac.”
The formerly unseen servants jumped to move her, and Di realized only as the body was being carried out what Lady Shiva had finally been able to pull off.
“The cunning little snake.” She said and Kate looked back wondering what she was thinking. “If Shiva has to step down someone has to take her place. The next of kin.”
“She got Jade to head her rebel Talons.” Kate’s already pale skin went white, the reality sinking in. “But only until she takes it back, right?”
“If she does, and there’s no knowing if she will.” Kate moved to stand next to her as they both looked at the new, unwitting head of ‘Haven’s underworld enforcers.
“So, if I’m right, this means that the Birds of Prey-“ Kate had to think to form the words, her brain hurt thinking them. “Run the rebellion against the Court of Owls…run Shiva’s Talons.”
A slight smile crept over Di’s lips. “They’re not hers anymore.”
Harper’s trek to Scarlet was difficult and messy. She tripped numerous times, either due to exhaustion, hunger, or mania. She kept hearing Jock, whispering cruel secrets to her, informing her she wasn’t good enough. For what?
“Everything. Anything. Your family hates you. You failed them. You failed Detroit, and you failed ‘Haven. You’re broken,” the voice cooed.
“No!” Harper cried out, falling over onto the grimy subway rail. She grunted in pain. Pain ached throughout her entire body, but her shoulder in particular felt like it was on fire. Nonetheless, she pushed herself back onto her feet.
“You’re broken, defeated, burned. You’re ashes,” Jock whispered.
“Then I’ll be reborn,” Harper said through gritted teeth, stumbling forward. “I’ll be better. You won’t stop me. Nobody will.”
A soft glow illuminated the distance. Was it a train? Was it Jock come to prove her wrong? Was it Heaven? Was she finally dying? Maybe she’d see Cullen in the afterlife…if she made it that far. But no, Harper realized, the light was coming from Scarlet. She was nearly home.
As she neared Scarlet, the light sparkled orange, yellow, red, the colors of fire. No, she realized, it was a flame. Flames. Like a warm fireplace.
Or a burning city.
“No!” Harper whispered, eyes wide as she finally recognized the sounds of gunfire in the distance. She sped up, and eventually broke from a limp to a run. Before she could reach the burning city, however, something—someone—crossed her path.
“Harper Jean Row,” Batwing, costumed, addressed the girl. “Or would you prefer Bluebird?”
“Try Red Hood. As in Scarlet. As in the city that’s fucking burning behind you!” Harper cried, trying to run past the hero.
Batwing stepped to the side, blocking her path. Harper glared up at him, eyes bloodshot.
“Move, or I’ll move you,” Harper threatened.
“Harper, you’ve fallen so far. You used to soar through the sky; now you’re here, tramping through the grime—weak, tired, broken,” Batwing said, emotion cracking through.
Harper cried out, seeing red, and attempted to slug her mentor. Batwing, however, saw the move coming, and caught her arm. He twisted it around and pinned it behind her back. Gritting her teeth, Harper kicked back, hitting the hero’s groin. He grimaced, but in her weakened state the blow hadn’t hurt much. He threw Harper to the ground, produced two pairs of handcuffs from his utility belt, and restrained her, even as she struggled against him.
“Let me go!!” Harper screamed. “My people are dying!”
“Harper, you taught me so much. It sounds cliché, but you changed my life. You are like the daughter I never had. You and your brother are my family, Harper; you’re all I have, and I can’t let you throw away everything and everyone you care about,” Batwing said grandly, but with obvious weakness exposed in his shallow voice.
“You’re not my father! My dad died! He was killed by a monster I have to stop!” Harper screamed, “So was my boyfriend, my friends, my brother!”
“Cullen is still alive,” Batwing retorted, lifting Harper off the ground. He chose to ignore the other sentiments, particularly hurt by her callous remark about family.
“He may not be dead yet, but he’s going to die, and then I’ll be left alone! I’ll be all alone, because that’s how it always is for the fucking hero—a sick, lonely son of a bitch,” Harper spat, struggling.
“You’re not acting like a hero,” Batwing firmly stated.
“Au contraire, I think she’s very heroic. She’s certainly got the tragedy cliché checked off. Abusive dad, dead friends, a violent streak—oh yeah, absolutely the makings of a hero. Trust me, I would know.”
Batwing swiveled around, and made out a costumed man leaning against the wall a dozen yards away. The new arrival was dressed in a slick gray costume, cowl and all, his cape drawn back and feathered like wings. Bright, wide blue lenses stared back emptily at Batwing, as the hero began to recognize the silver emblem on the man’s chest.
“Then again, I was always more of a sidekick,” the new arrival finished, smirking.
“You work for the Court of Owls,” Batwing muttered, still staring at the owl on his chest.
“’ ‘Work?’ No, this isn’t a job. I fight for the Court. I’m loyal. I’m the poster boy.” The man crossed his arms. “I’m Owlman.”
“Transport should be just outside.” Kate, cut and bruised, was pushing open doors. Hurt herself, Di was barely keeping up. “Kids first.”
“Always, Jade! This way!” Working to move the first of the injured Red Hood civilians into the open sewer tunnels, away from the burning city. Jade had the first six kids ready to be grabbed and were heading back for more. Untouchables could be heard nearby with ambulances. Kate ran ahead to greet them but Di ran back to get more of the hurt away from harm.
“We’re going to lose some; nothing to do about it.” Kate was finishing getting one young female teen settled before she moved to get more. “Help’s coming?”
“Should be parking now.” Di had spotted a few teens, barely standing, in a corner and hurried to grab them. They tried to move as they saw her. “Hang on, this is almost over. Lean on me.”
“There were more. I couldn’t get everyone.” The young man, holding a wound in his side, was still trying to encourage his companions. He looked at her and started at her own wound. “You’re hurt.”
“I’ve had worse. Don’t worry about me. How many?” There were stretchers now, people were being moved out. He was starting to cough, blood splattering onto the floor, even as the cries of his pursuers echoed in the distance.
“Four, they were hurt bad.” The medics were here. He still looked like he was going to get up and go back. “Dressed like me. Hurry.”
“On it. Take him out!” Kate dashed back. Di and Jade caught up with her darting to and from the center of the battle area to pull kids out of the worst of it. She had been working fast.
“Only a few more left. They look bad.” She was carrying two, barely teens. Her normally back costume was covered in blood. Jade’s green robes were as well. “Where are they going?”
“People that can be treated in the city are, but those that need ICU care are being flown out. They just don’t have the rooms for these numbers locally.” Di could feel her costume get sticky. She was covered as well. Of course some of it was her own, but no regrets.
“We need help, Batman isn’t going to come to us and this is serious now.” Kate was carrying her person, between the three of them they had the last of them.
“We have help. How do you bring down a house, even one like this?” Di was carrying two, glad they were almost done.
“One pillar at a time. Time for the Talons to go to war.” Jade looked at the two; they only nodded. Eroding from the shadows was the only chance they had.
“Batwing’s a dick,” Aaron muttered.
“Hey,” Gar nudged, “He’s a superhero.”
The two boys sat across from each other in the waiting area of the hospital. Visiting hours had ended. As they weren’t family, they couldn’t stay beside Cullen, no matter how much Gar argued. While they had to stay there for the night, at least they had the room alone. Visitors had either stayed in the patients’ rooms as family members, or left to get a good night’s sleep.
“Exactly. In my experience, superheroes end up disappointing you,” Aaron mumbled, looking at the ceiling.
“Aren’t you a superhero?” Gar retorted.
“I’m an exception,” Aaron shot back. He leaned forward to look Gar in the eyes, continuing, “Adults suck. The power of being an adult goes to their heads, and they suck. Now, imagine that power and multiply it by a thousand. That’s a superhero. An adult superhero.”
He sat back and crossed his arms, finishing, “I don’t want to ever grow old.”
Gar watched Aaron with amusement, a single canine sticking out of his slight smile. “What’s your deal with adults and superheroes?” Aaron looked away. “Really. Tell me. I won’t bite…but I can.”
Aaron sighed, shaking his head. “Fine, whatever. My dad was a hero, a scientist, a lot of things. Turned out he sucked at all of those, and he was a coward too. He and some ‘hero’ friends got a guy…” Aaron’s throat tightened. He rubbed his eyes. He wouldn’t do this. He wouldn’t break down again.
“They got a real hero killed. His name was Jason. He…” Aaron swallowed. “He saved my life.”
“Wow…that blows,” Gar admitted. He could tell how much Jason meant to Aaron.
“Yeah, well, that’s life. Gotta move one. But I can’t forget Jason, and I can’t forget what they did to him…or, I guess, what they didn’t do. I mean, I’ve forgiven them, but I can’t forget any of it, you know. I have to be the one to honor Jason now,” Aaron said.
“…Nightjay,” Gar realized. Aaron nodded.
A man in a labcoat, having just entered the hospital, passed by Gar, slightly knocking his shoulder. The green-skinned boy looked up, expecting to meet the cruel gaze of a bigot, but instead he found the man had continued onwards. It was an accident.
“Hey, you wanna apologize to my friend?” Aaron stood up, addressing the man.
The man paused for a moment, but did not turn around. He tightened his grip on something in his hand.
“Relax, Aaron,” Gar interjected. This was a bad idea. The guy was easily twice Aaron’s size. The boy might beat him in a fight, but it would be slow and brutal. Cullen wouldn’t be the only one to need the hospital’s aid.
“I don’t apologize to freaks,” the man grumbled. And there was the bigotry.
“Yo, man! Not cool.”
Aaron put a hand on the guy’s shoulder. He powerfully turned around to shake off Aaron’s grip, and flashed a pistol. Next came a tattoo of a black skull, unveiled under his T-shirt, opposite his heart. Both boys’ eyes widened.
“Back off,” the man growled.
“I don’t think so,” Aaron muttered.
The teen quickly crouched down and tackled the thug to the ground. The larger combatant reached for his pistol, but Aaron had seen that coming from a mile away. He kicked the pistol away as the man touched it. The thug’s next move was to take control by flipping Aaron over, but that became impossible when Gar entered the fray.
In anaconda form, Gar wrapped around the thug’s chest and neck tightly. Aaron backed off to cover the man’s mouth, and Gar extended his hold to the mobster’s arms and chest. Soon enough, the man quietly fainted, and Gar returned to his clothing and transformed into human form.
“The guy was proud and stupid. Two things that’ll get you caught or killed in ‘Haven,” Aaron muttered, glancing at the doorway. No one was coming. No one had heard.
“Why was he here?” Gar wondered, adjusting his clothes.
Aaron knelt down beside the thug and opened up his clenched hand. In it was a crushed needle. Yellow liquid was splattered and mixed with his blood. Aaron held up the largest chunk of the needle. Gar frowned.
“He was going to poison someone,” he realized.
“Ten bucks I know who,” Aaron said, tossing the needle and standing up.
“Cullen,” Gar whispered.
“And other Hoodies,” Aaron added. Upon Gar’s confused look, he explained, “It’s what I call the family and friends of Red Hoods.”
Gar nodded. “Do we think there’ll be more?” Before Aaron could reply, the green-skinned boy massaged his forehead and said, “God! A children’s hospital! Sick sons of bitches.”
“I bet there’s more here already,” Aaron said.
Gar looked up, worried. However, before he could speak, another boy entered the conversation.
“Don’t stress. We’ve got this covered.”
Gar and Aaron swiveled around to discover a masked boy and girl standing in the shadows of the doorway. Gar recognized the girl from weeks ago; she’d rescued him. Aaron knew the boy: the latest Redbird. He frowned. The name should have been retired.
“Can you do that ninja thing?” Gar wondered, pointing at the new arrivals.
“Redbird,” Aaron greeted, ignoring Gar.
“Nightjay,” Tim said.
“Um…Black Bat?” Gar stammered. The others looked at him. Cass cocked an eyebrow. Gar shrugged. “Sorry. It’s the best I’ve got.”
Tim ignored the comment and got right to the point. “And you are?”
“Beast Boy,” Aaron interjected. “An original name. You should try it.”
Tim grimaced, but continued, “As I was saying, we have this covered. I recently ran a program through the city database to see where the…Hoodies, was it?” Aaron glared at the boy. Tim didn’t falter. “Where the Hoodies were residing. Most, of course, were off books—Scarlet. Some, however, weren’t. We planted drones around each of their locations, and whenever someone in the BPD’s criminal database approached them, I was alerted. This was the third attempted attack in the last hour. Something’s going on.”
“Wait, what?” Gar asked, awed.
“It’s a flawed system. I’m sure we missed someone somewhere, but we’re doing our best,” Tim glanced away, genuinely embarrassed.
“You have access to the BPD’s—to the city’s—database?” Gar continued. Aaron rolled his eyes.
“We have no trouble finding most criminals,” Tim simply added. “And when we do…”
Cass beat her fist into her other open hand. Gar nodded, mouth agape.
“Anyway, there’s no other Black Masks in the hospital. You don’t have to worry about anything. This is our territory,” Tim said. “Nothing’s going to surprise us.”
Cass nudged Tim, who looked at her. Gar sniffed, a new scent, jasmine, suddenly in the air.
“Um, excuse me?”
All eyes were on the new arrival. A short, fit blonde in a purple hoodie stood in the entryway, her arms crossed. She glared at the other teens.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the girl asked.
“Oh my God…” Riddler whispered over Tim’s and Cass’ comms system.
“Who are you?” Aaron shot back.
“Stephanie Brown; my mom used to work here. But I wasn’t talking to you,” Steph glared at Cass. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Cass? I thought you said you’d quit.”
“Wait, your name is Cass?” Gar wondered, looking at the Asian girl.
“You know her?” Tim asked his partner.
Cass nodded. “She called me a week ago. Said she was coming home.”
“’Haven isn’t my home,” Steph interjected.
“She wanted to meet with me. I told her she should come here,” Cass said.
“When?” Tim continued.
“Ten minutes ago,” Cass admitted.
“How did you…? Never mind.” Tim shook his head. “When were you going to tell me about her?”
Cass shrugged, but she looked genuinely guilty. Tim sighed, and put a hand on her shoulder. The two locked eyes.
“I know you don’t talk much because you feel…embarrassed, but we have to communicate. We’re partners,” Tim said. Cass smiled and nodded. Gar’s face flushed. Well, damn.
Steph smirked. “You’ve moved on.”
“I can see you have not,” Cass retorted.
“I’m coming down there,” Riddler interjected.
“What?” Tim replied into the earpiece.
“Is that your boss? Your mentor?” Steph asked, all too aware of what seemingly talking to no one while in tights meant. “Why are you still pulling this hero crap, Cass? You’re going to get yourself killed, like Jason did.”
“You knew Jason?” Aaron, suddenly back in the conversation, shot in. Finally recognizing what the purple hoodie meant, he put two and two together. “Wait, you’re Spoiler!”
Steph rolled her eyes. “Once upon a time.”
“A lot changed,” Cass added.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Steph said.
“OK, not gonna lie. I’m a little lost here. Who is who, and who knows who, and how?” Gar interjected.
The four other heroes all shot back varying degrees of hostility; Stephanie’s eyes in particular blazed with rage. Tim, however, merely rolled his eyes and tisked.
“The blonde is Stephanie Brown aka Spoiler, a third generation Outlaw and one-time girlfriend of Jason Todd, who was the second Redbird,” Tim began.
“And my namesake,” Aaron added.
“Tell the whole world all my secrets, why don’t’cha?” Steph grumbled, exasperated. “B-T-W, I was never an ‘official’ Outlaw, and Jason and I were just…”
“Cute,” Cass said.
Jaw slightly agape, Steph looked at her friend. Her cheeks reddened, she stuffed her hands into her hoodie pocket, and glanced away for a moment.
“Sorry, Cass…I know you cared about him,” Steph said.
“That was a long time ago. I have moved on, as you should.” Cass tenderly rested a hand on her friend’s shoulder. The two girls looked at one another, embraced, and shared a moment none of the boys could understand.
As the awkward tension rose, Gar found himself looking around the room. Tim stared at his partner, gaze darkened. Aaron, for once, had nothing to say, and he merely kicked at a chair leg. The two girls separated, but continued to remain quiet.
Finally reaching the limit of his patience, Gar said, “So…yeah. Who’s up next?”
All eyes diverted again to yet another newcomer. This time it was the Riddler who silently snuck through the doorway. Face tight, as if after years of plastic surgery, and smiling uncomfortably, the older vigilante leaned forward, using his stylized cane for balance. Stephanie frowned as the man removed his green bowler hat, revealing a mop of unnaturally bright red hair.
After taking a moment to fully absorb the Riddler’s appearance, Steph’s jaw dropped.
“There’s no way…”
It was all too easy.
Owlman had Batwing in a vice grip faster than the older man could react. In the process, Harper was strewn to the side. The girl immediately got to work rubbing her restraints against a rusty nail in the wall. Meanwhile, Batwing had managed to reverse the pin, only to find himself flipped over Owlman’s back and onto the ground.
The Court’s ‘poster boy’ produced three birdarangs from his utility belt and threw them into the cracks of Batwing’s armor before the hero had a chance to roll back onto his feet. Grimacing, Batwing tossed an electric charge, only to have Owlman effortlessly dodge it by leaping against a wall. In mid-air, Owlman flipped so he landed feet first, and then propelled himself off the wall to tackle Batwing.
Owlman used one arm to push the hero against the ground, and the other to drive one of the birdarangs deeper into his chest. Batwing reached for his utility belt, but the villain forced his own weight down to keep the hero’s hand just an inch from his utility belt.
Then, he proceeded to bellow, “The girl is under the Court’s supervision now.”
“Bull shit I am!” Harper shouted back, still failing to free herself.
Owlman shook his head, smirking, as he continued, “Well, she will be once she finds out what we’ve got planned. It starts with two cities, then—“
“Let me guess, tall, dark, and handsome,” Batwing said through gritted teeth, blood dripping from his hand onto his belt, “The world.”
Owlman chuckled. “Look at you, Sherlock.”
“I always fancied myself more of a scientist!” Batwing growled, as his utility belt suddenly exploded.
Owlman got knocked back just a few feet from Harper. He managed to quickly flip back up, but not without strenuous effort. Debris had torn through his suit, shredding his chest to pieces. Part of his small intestine hung out through a wide gash. He grimaced.
“Ow. That certainly wasn’t pleasant.”
Batwing smirked. His suit had been made to withstand the explosion, but not without any cost. Most of his ribs had been shattered by the force of the blow, but he was otherwise unharmed.
Managing to stand up, Batwing said, “My belt’s a peculiar device. It’s constructed from your basic metal alloys, but there’s a catch.”
“Hemonium, the element you discovered. It reacts…explosively to hemoglobin in blood,” Owlman grunted, collapsing to his knees. “I did my research.”
Batwing nodded, as Harper stared on, shocked. She never knew her mentor had it in him. What a damn hypocrite!
“There’s a hemonium pocket hidden inside the belt. I simply say my code words—tall, dark, and handsome—in that particular order, and the pocket is opened. From there, one drop of blood…”
“And boom,” Owlman finished. “Well done.”
The villain casually placed his small intestine back inside his gut. Batwing frowned as Owlman forced himself back onto his feet. His wounds began to heal slowly at first, but the process sped up over the following few seconds. Batwing tried to step forward, to attack the villain, but stumbled and fell. Within moments more, Owlman’s suit may have been torn from the neck down to his waist, but his body itself remained perfectly unscathed. The only hint toward the origin of his odd talent was the unusual blue-green color of his veins.
“You…you should be dead,” Batwing muttered.
“Meh. Dead is so 2012,” Owlman playfully retorted.
“How…?” Harper began, finally bringing herself to speak up.
Owlman glanced at the girl and smiled. “Great health care is just one of the many benefits the Court of Owls offers. Want to change the world? Want to live forever doing it? The Court is for you!”
Owlman added a wink and thumbs up to play off his last comment.
“You’re a monster,” Batwing growled.
Faster than either Harper or Batwing could see, Owlman was atop the hero and his expression had changed completely. He grabbed Batwing by the throat and lifted him off the ground. The hero’s instinct to reach for his utility belt proved pointless. He lashed out, but Owlman smacked him into obedience.
“Look who’s talking! You blew me up, you sick asshole!! Do you know what that’s like?? DO YOU?” Blue-green crept through Owlman’s veins and into his eyes, coloring his irises.
Owlman looked at Harper, who stared at him, frozen in place. “So, whaddya say, Harper? Should this self-righteous ass get what’s coming to him? He stopped you from saving your friends, your family. He did nothing to avenge your father’s murder. He’s weak, sad, cruel, and unfair. You’re strong, brave, but he holds you back. Tell me. What should I do?”
“Harper…” Batwing gargled. A punch to the gut silenced him.
“I…I can’t…you can’t just…” Harper shook her head, pupils dilated.
“He’ll keep coming after you. He as good as said so. With him around, you’ll never be able to complete your mission. You’ll never get revenge. Cullen will have died for nothing,” Owlman continued.
“But…Cullen isn’t dead…is he?” Harper muttered.
“Quick, Harper. Think of Scarlet.”
The girl looked at the burning city. The screams of pain and terror echoed over the tunnel. Were they real? Did it matter?
“Think of your brother.”
Cullen whispered cruel nothings into Harper’s ear. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t. Why? What was holding her back? Him? Batwing? Cameron?
“Think of your revenge.”
Jock leaned in and cooed, “You’re too weak, girl, too soft.”
“What side are you on, Harper? Good or evil? Justice or injustice?”
Harper looked up, eyes swollen red with an enormous fire. A single tear slipped out of each of her eyes, but could not extinguish the flame.
“Do it,” she whispered.
Owlman smiled, turning his gaze back to the trapped man in his grip. Cameron reached out to Harper.
His arm went limp.
Two more tears followed Harper’s first, then more and more, until she was sobbing. She looked down at her hands, and the tears came more easily, but the fire would not die. It burned, just as Scarlet did.
Owlman tossed the corpse aside and approached Harper. He crouched down and freed her with a birdarang. Finally, the man lifted her up like an infant, and began the trek away from Scarlet and out of the fiery light. Harper did not fight him.
Even as the flame disappeared from view, Owlman continued to fan the inferno inside Harper.
“Together, girl, we’re going to change everything.”
“You what?” Dick exclaimed, leaning forward in his seat. He, Damian, and the Birds were situated in a private room in Mrs. Lance’s house. A couple rooms over, Shiva was resting, barely alive.
“Is he always this dramatic?” Kate grumbled, crossing her arms.
Babs smirked, and nodded. “Always.”
“Okay, enough banter. Seriously—you control an army of Talons?” Dick continued, “How does that work? I thought the Court had ‘em all.”
“There are a handful each generation—five, six, seven, the number varies. Jade was gonna be one of them, because a couple decades ago Shiva infiltrated the Court, starting this whole mess. They caught her and tried to use Jade as leverage. Shiva gave her up, but my mom pulled her out. When things got bad, Shiva fled, and brought some of the Talons with her,” Di explained.
Jade continued, “It’s not much, but it is something.”
“I…wow. I thought the Talons were completely loyal,” Dick stammered.
“I’d heard rumors of insurgents. My grandfather thought it was a myth,” Damian added.
“That’s what most people say about the Court, or even the League,” Babs noted. Damian nodded knowingly.
“So, what’s the plan?” Dick asked. “We storm the Black Masks’ base, and wreak havoc with the Talons? That’ll only draw the Court’s attention.”
“We have to act. You were fighting the Masks, not pulling the kids out. You didn’t see their faces. Bane has to be stopped.” Babs wouldn’t budge, Dick could tell. He’d seen that look on her face a thousand times, and he’d seen it in her father’s eyes.
“Fine, we’ll do it, but we can’t go in guns blazing. We do it quietly with a limited few people who we know we can trust,” Dick said, his intention clear.
“The Talons will obey me,” Jade argued.
“They’re also all we’ve got hidden up our sleeve. We can’t reveal them yet,” Dick said.
“As much as I hate to admit it, Grayson is correct. We go in alone, and silence Bane permanently,” Damian interjected.
“Silence…?” Kate raised an eyebrow.
“Tt. If you’re too cowardly to do it, then I’ll kill him.”
“No! No killing!” Dick ordered, and then turned to the Birds. “Please. Just people we…I can trust. For my own sanity.”
The Birds looked at one another, sharing a silent conversation the boys couldn’t even begin to comprehend. After a few moments, they all turned to face Dick. He gulped.
“We’ll meet you halfway. We act tomorrow, but we do it with a team of your choosing,” Babs said. Relief washed over Dick. The redhead leaned forward. “Who do you have in mind?”
A sly smile crept over Dick’s lips.