When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, 'Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.'
-- Robert Frost
Talia stood at the edge of the ballroom and sipped gingerly at the flute of champagne. She watched, somewhat disinterestedly, as people milled about on the main floor. There was a small ensemble of musicians on the other side of the room, and the sound of lush strings punctuated by the brassy licks of horns drifted over the muted voices of the finely dressed crowd. Squared black shoulders of men in tailored tuxedo jackets clustered in polite conversation. Gowns glittered in the low ambient lights, the women who wore them hanging like trinkets from the arms of the men they accompanied. Some couples danced on the ballroom floor by the musicians, though they appeared rather clumsy at their attempts to waltz, completely missing the accented step of the first figure more often than not.
Talia snorted distastefully. Her own gown was somewhat more subdued, lacking the vulgarity of glitz. Talia was too refined for that. What she wore was far more elegant -- a swathe and swirl of dark and medium green, like a malachite stone. Strong. Powerful. She was no man’s accessory. Anyone who dared suggest would feel the cut of her blade.
No one did. No one dared. In fact, anyone who hadn't had any direct dealing with her gave her a wide berth. Pleasantries had been exchanged, but behind all the pomp and pretense, underneath all the grandstanding bravado, and at the root of all the power plays, these people were just cowards with coiffed hair and cummerbunds.
Talia was bored with these people. She was tired of putting on airs, but thankfully she was nearly done for the night. Her business dealings here in New York had already been completed earlier, and she was looking forward to a restful night in her penthouse suite of the hotel. She only lingered now for one purpose -- to ensure that the presence of the League was noted amidst the crowd. Various businessmen, clan lords, mafiosi and the like nodded respectfully as they passed. Talia gave them a curt nod in return. Nothing was said. The fact that Talia had made an appearance was enough to remind the underworld of where she stood. Talia was feared and respected, therefore the League was feared and respected. It was simple as that.
Talia glanced around the room, noting the five points within her view in which her assassin guards were placed. There were two more placed just out of her peripheral vision, and more behind her, out of view. She turned momentarily to the side as a waiter wound through the crowd and approached, a tray of assorted amuse-bouche balanced in one hand. Talia waived him away, but when she turned back to look out at the crowd once more, there was someone standing beside her.
It was only through years of training and discipline that she managed not to outwardly show any sign of surprise. It took an expert amount of skill to sneak up on someone such as Talia, especially not without her guards noticing.
She noted his presence with a sidelong glance. At first, she thought it was Bruce -- the height, the build, the dark hair -- but the person was younger, his presence perhaps a little more aloof, but no less imposing in his own way. He felt familiar, and yet distant. A turn of her head confirmed it -- Jason Todd. A boy she had known quite well once upon a time, but now, after all they both had done she wasn't so sure anymore.
“I do not appreciate uninvited guests,” Talia commented. She kept her tone neutral and non-threatening, but not wholly welcoming either. She didn't want to appear too approachable in this setting. She turned back to scan the crowd, keeping Jason in her periphery, and signaled her guards. They were only now noticing the additional presence beside her. Stand down, she signed and then added, be alert.
She would never admit it aloud, but Jason’s presence was somewhat unsettling. Any time one of Bruce's children showed up it meant trouble was brewing, but… Jason was Jason, and that in itself brought a mix of emotions she couldn’t quite place. He had always been trouble to begin with. She had known that even before her people had found him wandering catatonic in the streets, but that knowledge still hadn't stopped her from taking him in all those years ago. It hadn’t stopped her from risking the wrath of her father by throwing him into the pit.
“Can we talk somewhere private?” Jason angled closer so that he was in Talia’s direct line of sight. It meant she would have to purposefully turn away in order to not look at him. She didn't appreciate being forced to acknowledge him, but it was effective. Talia focused on him -- Jason was dressed rather smartly in a fitted tuxedo. He had cleaned up quite nicely, and he did look rather like Bruce in so many ways. He had grown from the broken boy she had found years ago into quite a strikingly handsome young man, though somehow he still looked a bit more rugged than Bruce ever did. It was something about the wild severeness of his teal blue eyes, Talia thought. Still, he blended into the crowd of well-dressed finery, despite his hair being a little mussed with his bangs hanging down over his eyes.
Perhaps the night wasn't quite done yet, Talia thought. Jason's appearance certainly made things more interesting. It was clear he wanted something. That meant she could get something in return, and she would certainly take advantage of that. Talia had been grandstanding and asserting the League’s presence for over an hour. The posturing had its purpose, but it was tiresome and left little room to enjoy the pleasures of the soiree. The music was starting up again after a brief pause -- another lilting waltz. Couples were pairing up, and it had been a long time since Talia let herself dance. She decided she would indulge herself, even if only for a few minutes.
Without saying a word, she took Jason's hand and led him onto the ballroom floor, crossing the standing crowd and leading him toward where the couples danced by the musicians. Jason hesitated at first, but he followed, and allowed Talia to move them into closed position.
“This isn't what I had in mind when I said ‘private,’” Jason scowled at her, shifting awkwardly as Talia pressed herself close.
Talia didn't respond, instead she took the proximity as an opportunity to check him for weapons. She brushed up against his legs, felt the thigh holster there, and then ran her hand up his back -- shoulder holster under the jacket. Another hand down the front of his chest and along his side -- knife sheath in his cummerbund, but no body armour under his shirt.
“Knock it off,” Jason hissed, shifting to put some space between them. “You already know I'm armed.”
Talia smirked, “Fine.” She waited as he subtly relaxed his guard at that. As soon as he did however, she moved in close again, lifting his arms with her own to move them into dance frame, and then leading him into a box step.
Jason flushed red as he shuffled clumsily at first. He nearly stumbled as Talia led them into a natural turn, but his reflexes were fast, and he managed to catch himself quickly. Talia was only slightly surprised when once he regained his footing (and his composure), Jason adeptly synced himself to her movements.
He knew the steps, he followed the steady one-two-three of the beats. Lo and behold Jason knew how to waltz, and Talia wondered fleetingly if it was Bruce who taught him. More than likely it was their loyal manservant, Pennyworth, but that was neither here nor there. It wasn't the manservant who was here, it was Jason currently in front of her in the now, and he was doing quite admirably well at playing the dance partner. Despite the severity of the frown still plastered on Jason's face, Talia was having a good time for once that night. The rise and fall of their movements were smooth and perfectly in time. The music was light and not too slow, and Talia found herself smiling as Jason continued to let her lead. She pulled them into a reverse turn, then a backward passing change, and Jason stayed with her in lockstep. They glided and turned across the floor. It felt somehow freeing. Her father had never fully approved of her learning to dance, but she had insisted that it was a necessary social grace.
“Talia, I need to --,” Jason started, interrupting her pleasant reverie, but Talia shushed him.
“I will hear your request, but you will make it later,” Talia simply stated.
Jason acquiesced and quieted, though Talia could tell he wanted to snap a retort. That was unusual for Jason, and that meant that whatever it was he wanted, it was important enough that he didn't wish to risk angering her. It seemed urgent, but not immediate -- if there was an imminent attack he would have gotten straight to the point -- so if he wasn't here to warn her or try intimidating her into doing something (not that he could), then what he wanted was likely a favor. He was perhaps even a little desperate if he would suffer her whims without much complaint.
Talia took note as she continued to lead them around the ballroom floor, and now that Jason had demonstrated deference to her, she took the time to study him. She had missed it earlier, but with them standing so close together she noticed that he looked somewhat pale. There were dark hollows under his eyes, and even in the dim ambiance of the ballroom, she could see that his eyes were a little bloodshot. He remained alert and steady on his feet, but it was clear that he only remained so under strain. Jason was exhausted, and the fact that Talia could discern that was extremely concerning.
The music was moving into the coda, and Talia led them through one final turn on the floor as the music ended. She released Jason, and they parted. Jason finished with a slight bow.
Talia nodded, pleased with his decorum, but it was time to go. It was time to talk and figure out what would drive Jason to seek her out, when he should have had Bruce's resources at his disposal. Talia led them out of the ballroom toward a private elevator. They were silent as they rode up to her penthouse suite above, Jason following her queues and waiting until they passed through her security measures, but his patience only lasted until the door closed behind them.
“I need your help,” Jason followed Talia as she made her way toward the master suite. “Bruce is looking for me.” Now that they were alone, he had dropped any final pretenses. He looked worn and haggard and about ready to collapse.
Talia paused from removing her earrings and turned to him, placing her hands on her hips. “What trouble are you in, Jason? What have you done to earn the wrath of your father?”
Jason pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes. “Bruce isn't my father. And he and I had a disagreement over the best course of action to take.”
“I see.” Talia could tell he was being intentionally vague. He was hiding something, which wasn't unusual, but the fact that he was running from Batman wasn't a good sign. “And what is it that you would like me to do?”
“I need to get to Egypt undetected. Bruce rooted out and froze all my liquid accounts.”
“And what is it that you're offering in return?” Talia kept her tone cool and dispassionate. She didn't want to let on that she had already decided she'd give Jason whatever it was he wanted if it was within her means. However, it just wasn't in her nature to do so without exacting some sort of exchange, and she wanted to hear what it was Jason would offer up.
“My friends….” Jason shook his head and corrected himself, “I mean my team, will owe you one. Anything, short of outright murder.”
A rather dubious promise, Talia thought. Jason essentially had nothing to offer, and she didn't miss that he had offered his friends and not himself.
“And where are these teammates of yours?” Talia returned to removing her jewelry, setting down her emerald earrings, and then a matching antique necklace on the dresser of her master suite. She then hitched up the slit of her skirt slightly to undo the knife sheath attached to her garter.
Jason flushed and averted his gaze. It was cute, given that they had seen much more of each other in the past, but it seemed Jason didn't want a repeat of their one-time encounter. If Talia was being honest with herself, neither did she. After she'd gotten over her fit of anger at Bruce, she had regretted using Jason in that way. At the same time, Jason's discomfort with her undressing made him distracted, and that worked to her advantage of trying to get to the root of what was going on with him.
“They helped me run interference with Batman so I could get away.” Jason turned his back to her when Talia began undoing the side zipper of her dress. “They’ll find me if they can, but Artemis and Bizarro will honor the deal,” Jason continued.
Talia didn't like how this sounded. Jason going off alone was never good. “What will you do in Egypt?” Talia asked.
“I need to return a… relic. Bruce disagrees with my approach, but he's wrong.”
“What does this relic do?” Talia stepped out of her dress and undergarments and headed toward the bathroom.
“Sorry, Talia,” Jason was still turned away so she couldn't see his face. “I can't tell you anymore. That’s what I'm asking. Will you help me?”
Talia considered her options. Finding a mode and route that Bruce couldn't track would be difficult. If he was truly trying to find Jason, he would have eyes on all the major airports as well as smaller private charters leaving this side of the country. Chances were that Bruce would eventually be looking at Talia's known operators as well. He never left a stone unturned. She would have to work through mercenary and trafficking contacts then, and that could take at least a few hours to line up. Perhaps that would give her time to figure out what Jason wasn't telling her, and she could arrange a mode of travel through which she could keep tabs on him.
“I accept your proposal,” Talia said as she donned a robe from the wardrobe. She stepped into Jason's view and reached a hand out to cup his cheek, “You have a long journey ahead of you, Jason. Why don't you rest while I make some calls.”
He nodded as he gently grabbed her wrist to pull her hand away from his face. “Talia, I can't thank you enough.”
“Thank me when you have accomplished what you set out to do,” she replied.
Some indiscernible emotion flickered across his face, but he said nothing more. Jason retreated from the master suite and Talia set about making calls. It took longer than she had anticipated to line up the appropriate contacts, to transfer liquid funds into an untraceable account that Jason could access, and to wait for responses to confirm transport would be ready, so by the time she ventured back out into the penthouse lounge, she found that Jason had fallen asleep on the sofa.
He didn't stir as she approached. He was out cold, lying on his side with his head pillowed on a cushion. His unresponsiveness either spoke to the level of his exhaustion, or that he somehow felt safe enough in Talia's presence to let his guard down and properly rest. Perhaps it was both, and Talia was reminded of the days she had watched over him before she had pushed him into the pit. Back then, even without his mental faculties, he had trusted her and depended on her. She had cared for him, and looked after his well-being. She had wanted to protect him. She had held affection for him. Perhaps things weren't really so different now.
The departure of the cargo plane she had arranged wouldn't be until the following evening, so Talia's first thought was to let Jason rest a few more hours. She grabbed the throw draped over the back of the sofa to lay over his sleeping form, but as she leaned in close she noticed the trickle of blood that leaked from his nose. It had soaked into the pillow under his face.
“Jason?” She tempered her voice so as not to sound too alarmed, and reached a hand out to touch his shoulder. He jolted awake, eyes wild and fearful for a moment before recognition set in.
“Talia?” He swiped at his face, likely feeling the wetness run across his lips as he spoke. “Shit,” he said as he stared down at his bloody hand.
Talia ushered him into a bathroom and pressed a towel to his face. A nosebleed was usually nothing serious, but under the circumstances she was concerned. She wasn't sure if it was a sign of some previous injury or something more serious.
She studied Jason again. He still looked pale. He kept his eyes closed as he waited for the bleeding to stop. He was breathing a little faster than what Talia would have expected if this was something trivial, and she suspected that this was not an isolated occurrence.
“Is this a pattern?” Talia decided to be direct. “What aren't you telling me?”
“It's just a nosebleed,” Jason said dismissively, and then glanced down at his wrist to check the time. “Fu-,” Jason bit back the curse, his voice muffled from the towel still pressed to his nose, “I mean, crap. I better go. Were you able to get transport lined up?”
“I'm beginning to think agreeing to this was a mistake.”
Jason furrowed his brow and pulled the towel away from his face. Blood still oozed from his nose. “If you won't help me, I'll find some other way. So unless you're going to try and keep me here, I'm going.”
He got up to leave, and Talia could see his conviction. The only way she was going to prevent him from doing whatever he was doing was if she fought him, and that would only serve to drive him away further. No, the best course of action was to continue with her original plan -- to aid him while figuring out how to steer him in the right direction.
“Wait.” Talia caught Jason's arm before he could make it to the door. “Your transport isn't until next evening. You can stay here and rest until then.”
She picked up the towel and raised it to press to his bleeding nose again. Jason took it from her before she could touch his face. “Thank you, Talia, but I should go. The longer I stay in one place, the easier it will be for Bruce to find me.”
“Alright,” Talia nodded, feeling dismayed. “I'll get what you need ready.”
She left him with the towel pressed to his face in the bathroom to load the information onto a data card. When she returned from her room, Jason was already at the front door. She handed him the data card.
Jason took it and reached for the door handle, but then paused. He turned back to Talia, “Thank you again. For helping me.”
To her surprise, he then swept her into a quick hug. She felt the embrace of arms around her, and it registered just how much bigger he was than her. He had grown so much since those days before the pit, when if anything he had been somewhat small for his age. As quickly as the thought crossed her mind, Jason let go. He opened the door and was gone.
Talia decided she would track his transport to Egypt, and then she would follow up with him after he hit ground. For now, there was nothing more to do but go to bed.