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Chapter Text

He wakes up in a strange, clinically-lit room. He's safe for the two seconds it takes for him to realise it's not a hospital. And to notice Dick is in just as awful condition right beside him.

He feels rope digging at his skin. It's not metal, and not tied particularly tight. He surmises they're in one of two possible situations: they've been kidnapped by idiots, or they're being set up to run around like rats. He doesn't really appreciate either, but the first is at least slightly appealing. Idiots are fun, he likes freaking them out, winding them up a little, acting like he's gonna let loose. He never does, half of them don't deserve actual retribution, but it usually scares them away. Makes them rethink a bit. Lets him sleep better at night when he wonders what shit he's ever done for this city.

The second option is upsetting. If they have Dick, this is a Bat matter. Not some personal vendetta against Jay himself, which is completely unoriginal and something he's dealt with countless times, and so beyond boring he can no longer muster up enough fucks to give. But a personal vendetta against the Bats? He doesn't usually get dragged into those. Even to the scum of this Earth, he's not quite as morally high-strung as he needs to be to get dragged in with Bruce and the Justice Crew.

So he offers out the tree branch. "You okay, Nightwing?"

"Man, aside from feeling like I took one too many baseball bats to the head? Yeah, fine." Dick pauses, chews his lip. "Oh, shit," he says, eventually. "We're fine."

"And Detective Lite catches on!" Jay would clap, if his hands weren't burning and straining against his bonds. "Please tell me you know what this is about. Say you know this MO, and that you keep a nice, neat track record of all the people who want to off you and pin your head on their wall."

"That's a pleasant image," Dick quips. "I do. But the clinical approach is overrated, these days. Too many bad guys are trying it, now. It's the flavour of the week."

Jay breathes in, slow, and exhales. "It could be anyone. That's what you're saying."

"You're not gonna tell me you don't think we'll figure it out, are you?" Dick snorts at this, as if the thought itself is so absurd it's ventured into amusing. "I'm almost out of these. How about you?"

Jay hums. "Gimme somewhere around twenty seconds and I'll be good."

"Game plan?"

"When they can hear us?"

Dick shrugs off the ties, and Jay's comment. "Makes no difference either way. What code do we have that they can't break?"

"Bird calls."

"Shut up." Dick laughs. "You wanna pick a door to take?"

"Go left. People always go right. So we'll go left."

Dick stretches, hunts around his back for any leftover weapons. Jay just shakes his head. He noticed the familiar imprint of his pistols against his thigh was missing ages ago. "I'm taking it we'll try to get out of here, but I'm pretty sure it's not gonna be that easy. Don't know why I feel this way, Hood, I've gotta say. It's very unusual for this city." Even as blood wells from his cut wrists, he's making more laughlines. Trust him to keep it cheery.

"Not at all its style. Watch your back, bird boy. I think we're about'ta meet the monster under the bed."

Jay gets up, and slams over a decade of training into the weight of the leftside door. It topples over like a house of cards, and that's when Jay becomes certain they're in Situation Number Two. "It's a trap. What do you say, wanna walk right into it?"

Dick grins. "Sounds like a plan, little wing." He gestures at the door, bows a little. "Please, ladies first."

"Eat a dick," Jay replies, but heads out the door anyway.

The hallway is dark and smells like blood. "Luck is clearly on our side," Dick says, but now the high spirits are fading a little from his voice.

There's an odd light emanating from somewhere vaguely above them. Each corridor turns into another, into another, into another, and they've taken so many wrong turns he's sure they're on the path to Hell. It's meant to be confusing, and it's working. Jay's used to seeing straight through tricks like these, not getting suffocated in them. These people, whomever's -- whatever's -- behind this, they're good. Too good.

They, with their little lab rat paws, are trailed through by the scientists, while Dick makes random speculation. "This place just gets weirder and weirder," he offers. "So, weird people. That narrows down the list by so much."

"They're leading us somewhere. Like Soccer Mommy, hand-in-hand, directing her thirteen kids."

It's a waiting game. Follow blindly and see whatever light is at the end of this tunnel. "It's a maze," Dick says. "I think. Okay, it's probably a maze. Some sort of game-playing supervillain? We've got a lot of those too."

Something tells him they're gonna be exploring a whole lot of it. Pan's Labyrinth. Everything's so clinical, so professional and obsessively modernised, like an office building, but the decor is all wrong. Very classical, old-timey. Two things that rightfully shouldn't blend together, creating a paradoxical, winding route meant to break them all down.

The scientists aren't likely to let them escape yet, so they must want something from them. Whatever they're being led to, that'll be key. He knows it will.

They don't make progress fast. Bats are cautious by nature, but running yourself in circles in a maze made to make you go crazy is godtier stupid. Each hallway looks the same, save for a few minor details. Different scaffolding, different symmetry, little torchlights attached to the wall flickering in patterns. Some form of mapping system? He'll note it for later. Right now, it means they're going in the right direction. The walls are the bait for the trap they're about to throw themselves in.

Dick angles his head back toward Jay. "Any guesses on where we're headed?" he asks.

That gets him a shrug. "Only that we're supposed to be headed there."

Dick pauses in his steps to shoot Jay a wry look, then a considering one, and from there, curious to concerned. Jay waves him away, questions are for later, and follows closely behind as Dick continues his path onwards. His boots click against the floor like little animal claws, and the omnipresent feeling of an ongoing experiment being watched by its researchers grows thicker, crawling down Jay's throat and settling in his stomach. "Yeah, I had that part figured out."

Chapter Text

The light stays dizzying, and Jay stays nauseous. He counts a good mile before the narrow corridors open out into a bigger, brighter room. This place is big, clearly underground, and evidently meant to disorientate. He suspects everything, looks for traps at every corner, but there's nothing except the strange, sickening way the walls seem to twist. The landing room itself is plain, save for a few Greek-style statues hanging about, of no-one particularly recognisable, and the fountain nestled cozily in the centre. It's tall enough to reach into the fog of the high ceiling, but he can't look farther without feeling like he's just stepped out of a fair ride.

"Who wants to bet the water's poisoned?" Dick asks, on his hesitant approach. He toes the base of the fountain curiously, but nothing happens. There's not even a dent, not a scuff, on the smooth marble. It gives the distinct feeling of being unreal.

Jay returns, "Who wants to bet they're gonna make us drink it?"

Dick says what they both feel. "What the hell is up with this place? Seriously, if I didn't have the creeps before..."

"You tell me, bird boy." Jay rubs a hand through his hair. He's sweaty and the whole place reeks of stone and water that's been running for a hundred years. "Anything clue you in so far?"

"Dunno," Dick offers, with an honest shrug. "The statues look kinda meaningful, but this whole 'waiting room to the afterlife' thing isn't new. I mean, just about every supervillain who's style over substance goes for this aesthetic once in a while."

"The surrealism is intentional. Right?"

Dick spins a full circle. "Look around you, Little Wing, and tell me that you don't think this is dripping in unreality."

"So. They're throwing us off. What for? We're Bats. Paranoia is our name and our game."

"I'm getting the feeling they're toying with us. I don't think they really care whether we anticipate what's coming or not. Or at least, they don't expect us to. If we figure it out, there's no telling if it will pleasantly or unpleasantly surprise them."

"Hey," Jay says with flourish, "you can't know if you don't try."

Dick snorts. It's a blatantly stupid move, and he's impressed by it. "You took the words right outta my mouth!"

Jay moves to collapse against the edge of the fountain, resting his head against cool stone. On one hand, they've got to try to escape with everything they have, and on the other, movement means hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and eventual death. Great prospects, very inspiring, and Jay couldn't care less which they choose. Flip a fucking coin. He knows they'll be made to go along with whatever plan's in store for them regardless. Why make it easy?

"What the fuck are we even gonna do?" Jay blurts out, eventually.

Dick blinks. "Get out," he says, like it's the easiest thing in the world.

"How?" Jay throws up his hands, then buries his face against the fountain wall. "Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this. What is this? Some sorta trick?"

"Believe me, if I had any idea, I'd tell you." Dick slumps down onto the ground next to him, squeezes his shoulder. "Hey, you know we'll get out of this, right?"

There's this terrible feeling bubbling up, thick like bile. "What if we don't?" he asks. "What then, huh?"

"We'll die trying. That sound good to you?"

Jay stops, breathes in. "Yeah. Yeah, sounds good. Fuck them, right? I wanna go back to terrorising the city again, y'know how I am. Not gonna lie down here like a beached whale and rot like they want me to."

Dick laughs at that. "That's the spirit." He dips one gloved hand into the water, trailing two pinstriped fingers against the bottom of the fountain. Then, he stops. "Holy shit."

The hairs on the back of his neck prickle, hearing that tone of voice, that kind of shock. "What? Don't just leave me hanging like this, circus boy, what's goin-"

"There's money in here. Coins. Look."

"I- I'm failing to see the point."

"Look at the date, Jason. The date."

It's just a penny, all green and smoothed away by years in this shithole, but the inscribed year is still visible, along with a faint impression of the picture it once depicted. He balks.

A flying eagle. 1858.

"You're fucking joking."

The last sorry fuckers had been trapped here for two hundred years. Odds are, they're never getting out. He's just surprised they haven't found the skeletons yet.

"I should just get on with it and drink the water now. Think if I try hard enough it'll taste at least vaguely alcoholic?"

"It's a trap, Jay. Not everyone's gonna make it out. Don't act like you're giving up."

"I'm being realistic. This is old. We're gonna be long dead before anyone gets a chance to find us, just like the last unlucky bastards to wake up down here, and like the ones before that, and before that, and I could just keep on fucking going, but I don't want to bore you, God forbid."

"You're panicking."

"Damn straight. I'm gonna kill them. I swear to sweet baby Jesus I'm gonna tear them to shreds and-"

Dick grabs ahold of his shoulder once again. "Bats don't lie down and die, remember?"

"I'm not lying down about it. I'm just stewing in my anger here. Don't mind if I do a little wallowing, huh? This is- this is embarrassing. I thought I would be shot. Or stabbed. Or thrown off a cliff, who really gives a shit? Anything's better than this."

"Hey, at least you're with me," Dick gets out, though he's gone a little sad now, a little rough around the edges. "Could be with Bruce. Or Dami, even. Imagine that."

"You're the fun one. Bruce would be a huge pain in the ass. Damian would be, somehow, some way, a thousand times worse. I can smell the righteous indignance now. The 'Waynes don't die like this! We die with honour!' spiel. Kill me yourself before I have to die listening to that."

"I'm flattered."

"Listen," Jay says. "You are the fun one. For what it's worth, which I know isn't shit, I'm sorry they brought you down here with me. Should'a grabbed the Clown. I'd have gone down over-fucking-joyed."

"We're gonna make it out of here, Little Wing. I promise you. I give you my word. I pinkie swear."

Jay grits out a snort. He hadn't liked waking up the first time, but at least he'd woken up. He knows there won't be a second time. He knows this is the final straw, no more second chances, no more fancy green magic pits to conveniently restore his sanity. No more universe-bending, physics-defying fuckery. Dead and buried, six feet under. Gone. "Because that's legally binding."


"I'm with you, Dickie. I'm just not optimism and rainbows like you are. Forgive me if I'm a little bitter. Last time I did this, well. That was the bomb, let me fuckin' tell you."

"I'd call that insensitive, but-"

"It's my own damn death and I can say what I want about it?"

"Yeah. What you just said."

"Got any for this time around?"

A pause. "Water we doing, not coming here sooner?" Dick winces. "Nope, not my best."

"Guess you could say, you're feeling pretty washed up."

"Oh my god." Soon, he's full on wheezing with laughter. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's just- nobody knows how to lighten stuff like this up like you do, Jay. You think we're gonna die and you're cracking jokes."

"It's about all I can do right now."

Dick sighs. "We can do a lot. No-one's quite as uniquely qualified as we are."

"And we're gonna get through this, I know. Gotta admit, that coin is not what I'd call encouraging. Hello, newsflash, we're trapped with the two hundred-year-old dead bodies of the last people to get this unlucky. You get what I'm saying."

"I do. Believe me, I do."

Dick lets him rest for a good half hour against the tile. The air in the tunnels was musty and smelt like decay, but the fountainroom is open enough, clean enough, that he doesn't feel like he's half-choking on every breath. It's relaxing, in a way, a very strange way where nothing is real and nothing really matters. Coming down from the shock of realising you're in a giant labyrinth, perhaps.

They still have their tech, that's what's most important. Half of it is broken, sabotaged, for god knows what reason, but Dick still has a scanner or two. And at least an eighth of Jay's helmet is working properly. No connection to the cave, but enough for the two of them to safely determine the water is not, and hopefully won't be, poisoned.

He drinks. Long and hard. Then resettles himself, and says, "So, we've got some exploring to do. Find out who's behind this, then kick their ass, so we can get out and... file an official complaint with Big Bat, or whatever."

"We'll work out a way to navigate later. First, I wanna do some damage control. Fix up my tech."

"With marble and old coins?"

"I'll make do."

Jay cradles his head in his hands. The temperature here is off. He's sweating but it's cold and the water just makes it colder, and he feels dizzy and unbalanced. He just wants to sleep. "So, sitting here."

Dick seems to understand this. "Get some more rest, Jay," he says, and gently runs a hand over Jay's head, fingers trailing through the curls.

His vision is dim, then dark, within seconds.

When he wakes, his head is cradled on the edge of the fountain, hair mussed, tips trailing in the lightly flowing water below. He blinks, yawns, and stretches, shaking little droplets of water all over their pristine floor. Then he leans down and takes long gulp after long gulp, until there's water dripping down his chin, and he feels less adrift, more grounded in current timespace and not in strange dreams where the maze reaches out and swallows Dick whole. He had died, in that dream, alone and cold and hungry.

"Something here messes with your head," he says, more to himself.

"Big time," Dick confirms. He's packing a single spare canteen with fountainwater, tucking supplies back into his escrima-lacking holsters. "Hard to focus on the tech, with the light like that. It's like they just barely want you to see. Enough to be intimidated, maybe? Not enough to figure out where the hell we are."

Jay nods, and slowly makes his way over to Dick's side, to examine and steal what little tech they have left. "It's not much. Only what doesn't need replacement parts. A scanner. Some medkits. The advanced stuff? My cowl, your helmet, the connection to the Batcave database. That needs a bit more than marble and coins. Just a little."

"You're good with this stuff," Jay says. "And it's better than nothing. Thanks, birdie."

Dick returns his focus to running inventory. "My pleasure," he offers, distracted, and Jay gets up to move on.

The room itself is spacey. Enough to be a grand entrance hall, if only there were an actual entrance. There's the fountain -- not poisoned -- and the statues -- not of anyone they can currently identify -- and the high-rise ceilings. Who the fuck knows what's up there? Jay's not taking his chances with no weapons and blinding light.

Aside from that, the place is disturbingly devoid of all signs of life. Not even previous life. No dust, no notes, no markings, no skeletons, no anything. The twisted people that run this shitshow either come down to clean, which is their best opportunity to escape, or something here is very, very hungry, and very, very swift about it.

Jay's watching his own reflection in the water, examining the bags under his eyes and the light pinch of ginger 5 o'clock shadow. He's never really considered a beard, but now is as good a time as any to change. Especially considering they have a steady stream of absolutely no supplies, and certainly no melee weapons. Razors aren't happening.

"My hair's gonna grow out," he says, and Dick snorts.

"That's what you're worried about?"

"No, not worried. Just weird. Haven't seen it without dye since... probably the pit. You can't dye when you die, you get me? Or when you get dunked in the in-laws' fucked up hot tub."

"Hey, in their own eccentric way, it's the extended family's way of showing they care."

"I'd prefer the classics," Jay says, sneering. "Honesty and sharing. No zombie voodoo bullshit."

"'Zombie voodoo-'"

"Yeah, that's what I said."

Dick shrugs. "Your hair will be fine. Mine, on the other hand, will be ruined." Dick mocks swaying on his feet. "What will I do without my perfect coiffure?"

"You ever wonder why they call you pretty boy?"

"Pretty much never."

His reflection has only gotten worse. The water is perfectly still. Until it starts -- the noises -- slow at first, just a few ripples, until it's vibrating and spilling over the sides, disturbed by some unknown force. Jay reels back.

Dick jumps up immediately, but they have no weapons, and honestly running and hiding are better options. Jay waves an arm, and they scatter out of the room, dashing down corners, away from sight. Jay's relatively good with stealth, enough to realise then and there his boots could, in no way, be rumbling that loudly. It sounds long and low, like someone's dragging a body through the halls.

He waits, in a cold, dark patch of the maze, some dead end nobody could give less of a shit about, and watches in complete astonishment, peeking around the corner, as an honest-to-god patrol of drones flies past. Most of them are holding nothing and branching off in different directions, none of them near to Dick or to him, but the ones that remain on a path straight for the fountain are lugging boxes and bags full of something, anything, that Jay can only hope won't blow them sky high.

A small voice whispers in his ear, through the commlink he'd thought busted, sending surprised shudders down his spine. "Can you hear me? I think I got it working, but only time will tell, right?" A nervous laugh. "Jason?"

Jay breathes, comfortingly, "I'm here, I read you." Then, "What the fuck did we just see?"

Chapter Text

"Do we risk it?" Dick asks.

"Do we have a choice?"

"Yes, no, maybe so?" There's a long, resigned sigh. "Race you. First one to die horribly wins."

"Isn't it the other way around?" But Jay tenses, sets his boots hard against the ground, and pushes off. The faster he makes it to the fountainroom, the faster he's out of danger. Relatively. There are, of course, still those fucking drones hanging around their makeshift HQ, but getting lost in the maze is honestly an even worse idea than standing around, unarmed, and facing down an unknown force's army of high tech robot deliverymen.

He and Dick make it to the fountain at the same time. Jay stays at its base and settles into a defensive stance immediately, but Dick, the absolute reckless shithead, flips himself backwards and onto the nearest drone, which had previously been hovering benignly around, minding its own fucking drone business. The rest drop their packages, which apparently aren't explosive, and fly off in about ten different directions, while Dick's catch struggles like a fish out of water in his hands.

"The fuck are you doing?"

"I wanna fix up my tech," Dick says. He wrestles the drone onto the ground and holds it there with one foot. "I can either dismantle it, or get it to call all its buds for reinforcements, which I can also dismantle. Do you think they're remote or A.I. controlled?"

"Is that really the most pressing fucking question on our minds right now- why did you just steal our kidnapper's machinery, and probably piss them off about, I dunno, twenty-five times more than necessary?"

"It'll clue us in to who they actually are. Besides, if we're down here, they're already pissed. Or just morbidly curious and aching to perform all sorts of Close Encounters-ish experiments on us, in which case, yay, congratulations, Jason, I just stole their dissection bot, no need to thank me or anything."

"Dissection bot-! There's a whole damn platoon of those things out there, so congratulations on encouraging them to vivisect us, I've already got autopsy scars, big bird, I don't need more. This lifetime or next one. You should shut that shit down before it does actually decide to call in reinforcements."

Dick starts to press his boot down harder, then hesitates. "But is it sentient?"

"It's not your goddamn hamster, Dick!" Jay tries not to yank out his own hair. "Listen, it's very honourable of you to be such an upstanding citizen, the perfect boyscout, but please- at least blind the thing. Cut off its communications."

Dick stares down at it, squirming under his thankless, merciless hold. "D'ya think I could get it to fix my mask for me?"

"I wouldn't take bets on it."

"Hey! Boss taught me more than the basics, and I've branched out a lot since then. I'm no Red Robin, but I don't completely suck."

Jay shrugs. "I trust you're not being an egotist. What do we have to fuckin' lose anyway?"

"Thank you." Dick waves at it. "Hey, little guy. Wanna give me a hand? Or am I gonna have to take you apart after all?"

Jay sits down and waits for a long, hard battle that will inevitably end in the drone's tragic destruction, but no such thing comes. In fact, as soon as Dick switches to holding it by the wing, it seems eager to hang around. Dick, being the one with no sense, releases his grip after a long, not-nearly-as-contemplative-as-it-should-be stare. Jay's shocked to watch as it stays. "It shouldn't be helping us," Jay says. "Voluntarily. Hell, involuntarily. Y'know the kinda shit they programme onto those things? The endless encryption, never-ending security, and ten thousand safewalls? They're either idiots or we're doing exactly what they planned."

"Well, it's not like I can just kick it on its ass now. It knows too much. It's heard our names."

"Yeah, and relayed them back to base-"

Dick vehemently shakes his head, and points at the drone, which looks strangely innocent for an inanimate fucking object. "No, no, look, it likes us."

Jay holds up his hands. "You're fucking crazy, dude. Do what you want. When we die I'm blaming you, though."

"Fair trade."

"We have to name it."

Jay sighs, long-suffering. In his best Bruce impression, he says, "Personification and humanisation of inorganic objects is a symptom of numerous underlying disorders-"

"What else are we gonna do?"

Jay slowly walks over and surveys it. "Any identifying markings?"

Dick runs his hands along its hull. Matte black, with little propellers to keep it afloat, and that's about it. Nothing immediately evident, but Dick lights up after a minute anyway. "Look, here, there're a couple little ridges. It's- oh, man, it's morse code."

"What's it say?"

Dick blinks. "T-Y-T-O. Tyto?" He grins. "They named it for us?"

"Name mean anything to you?"

"Yeah, I've heard it before. It has that dry feel to it, y'know, like something scientific, actually, the boring stuff Boss used to teach me. Gimme a sec. It'll come to me."

"Thank god for your Bat-enforced memory accuracy, or else we'd be screwed. Tell me once you get anything."

Dick is silent for a while, just gazing down at the small, whirring creature under his hands, until he stops dead. "There's latin. Titus, and all its variations. Honourable, honoured one, etcetera. I'm sure we all know that. But there's another. Greek."


"Tyto. Night owl."

Jay's quiet for a long, long time. "The Court."

"I should've guessed at 'scary labyrinth' and 'weird statues'."

"What the fuck does the Court want with us?"

Dick looks like he's been entirely struck dumb. "With you? Beats me. They like me, I'm good Talon blood, or something similarly creepy. But why drag you into this?"

"Recruiting? Brainwashing?"

"Possibly. Kinda desperate. It seems too vulnerable a move for them."

"Big Bat thoroughly nailed their asses, if you remember."

"I mean, it would explain a lot."

"We can't even know for sure until you fix our goddamn tech. Shit, fucking ancient crime bosses and their organised mob of bird-obsessed elite wackjobs."

Dick smiles a little. "Arguably that's us." He shrugs. "I'll have our tech working soon. If the Court wants something from us, Tyto here might actually be legitimately willing to help us get fighting fit again, as long as it's under their terms. And that's better than nothing for now."

"Sure, okay. But I want it noted I trust that fucker about as far as I can throw him."

Dick salutes. "Gotcha loud and clear, Jaybird."

Tyto whirls around like an excited puppy half the time, eagerly following Dick's orders. Jay doesn't even want to question how it understands English, let alone Dick's unique, rambling, equally as excited brand. It's entirely cooperative, docile, and likable. It's fucking disturbing.

"Are you sure it's the Owls who sent it?"

Dick looks up from scratching it behind the wings. "Well, yeah, pretty sure. I get it, it's freaky because it's actually nice, but what about not looking a gifthorse in the mouth?"

"Aww," Jay says, dryly, "bless its poor heart." He shakes his head. "It just doesn't seem right. When have the Owls ever been anything but a gigantic pain in the ass? They claim to be polite society and all, but they wouldn't know manners if they got hit over the fuckin' head with 'em, let's be real here."

Dick claps a hand over his mouth. "Careful! You might hurt Tyto's feelings." Then, he returns to scratching the damn thing, like it's going to start purring, or get won over to their side, or whatever the hell Dick is thinking. "No, you're right, it doesn't make any sense. But the pieces fit. The maze, the statues, the shared interior decorator, the whole shebang."

"The whole shebang except for the whole part where they're only mild dicks now, instead of the giant ere-"

"Yes. Jay. Thank you for your input."

"Just saying."

Dick strokes a hand over Tyto's head one last time before refocusing on his half-fixed, half-broken mask. It won't be long before it's in working order again, and then, then they'll have to explore and confirm the Court orchestrated this whole fiasco. He doesn't get the feeling they'll like it if they decide to snoop around too far. "We'll figure it out," Dick says, decisively.

"It's your call. You know them a lot better than I do."

"Only in the sense that they want a piece of this sweet body for unspeakable scientific experiments and are really into pursuing that obsession, but okay. I say we annoy them until they come down here. Use their own maze against them, get to know this place like the back of our hands, escape when they're vulnerable, confused, and a touch pissed off. Sound good to you?"

Jay gives his best grin. "Hell yeah, damn right it does."

"Then it's a deal." Dick holds out a hand for Tyto to fly up against. "Isn't it a deal, little guy?"

"The second we turn our backs it'll kill us," Jay warns. "It's like a Terminator. An infiltration unit. The Court knows you have a weakness for cute things, and it's beyond capitalising on that weakness, Dickie."

"You would never hurt me, would you?" Dick smiles down at Tyto warmly. "Don't make me dismantle you now, you lil' cutie."

"That's fucking terrifying," Jay says, and sits back down against the fountain. He's still heard nothing save for the drip of the fountain and the whir of Tyto's internals, not in the whole day and a half or so they've been here. The Court is going for sensory deprivation, and eventually it's gonna work. They're gonna drive themselves nuts in here, like Bruce did. And if you can get to Bruce, you can break the whole world. Nobody holds out like Bruce holds out. Not even the World's Biggest Boyscout, goddamn Superman. "Gimme something to do," he blurts out. "I've gotta do something before I lose it in this shithole."

"Other than soldering some of these parts together? There isn't much. I mean, solder away, but I can't guarantee a riveting experience."

Jay shrugs. "Don't care. I need to do something with my hands before I try to dig my way out."

"Let's please not do that," Dick admonishes, waving a wrench his way. Jay eyes it.

"Anything printed on those tools? Serial numbers? Threatening messages? Pictures of owls?"

Dick shakes his head, letting his hair fall into his eyes. He tries to blow it back and only succeeds in mussing it farther. Then, he just gives up, and goes back to work. It makes him look like an honest to god soot sprite. "Nothing. Tyto's the only legible one here, I think."

"Lame," Jay says, putting his feet up against the fountain and gazing in. "How're we gonna wash?"

"Dump water over ourselves? We can't get in the fountain. Far as we know, it's our only water source."

"Dump water over ourselves with what? Tyto's toolbox?"

"Sure thing."

Jay stares. "Okay, time for the welding torch. And no, I'm not gonna take it to your new puppy, relax." He pauses. "These are all weapons, y'know. We could roast the Owls and make 'em into hotwings, I guess. That'd work."

"Ineffectual weapons. What's a wrench against a Talon? And how're we gonna get close enough to them to torch them? They're no Flying Graysons, but they're damn flexible. Like wet noodles."

"Gross," Jay says, wry.

"But true!"

"But true," Jay acknowledges. "Okay, hotwings are off the table. Wrenching their kneecaps is also off the table, huh?"

"Too bendy."

"Straight up punching them? Shooting them? Drowning them in the fountain?"

"They're undead. What'd Bruce say, the only way to kill them was cold?"

Jay grins. "Will my cold, dead heart do?"

"It's neither of those." Dick doesn't look pleased. "I doubt there are many, if any, cryopods in here. Definitely not enough to freeze all the Talons, if that were actually even plausible in the first place. The only other option would be flooding the room with something like liquid nitrogen, but then we'd end up popsicles."

"Mr. Freeze's entire life wasn't really my go-to retirement plan."

"Wasn't mine either." Dick sighs, again. This is honestly the most downhearted Jay has ever seen him. There have been worse times, of course, like probably the time Jay's heart was in fact cold and dead and deep in the ground, but he wasn't ghosting around to see any of that. And Jay's been a loner most of his career, never up close and personal with the rest of the Bats. He supposes he doesn't really know how any of them have reacted to the worst of the news. He only knows his own way to cope, which usually involves smoking a good ten packs and punching the sick fucks who don't have a right to live in this world anymore. He's gonna go out choking and bloody-knuckled. It'll be a riot. "We're good at the whole bait and trap deal," Dick offers. "That's a start."

"Yeah, as good as any. If we can't kill them, and we can't catch them, and we can't interrogate them, I guess the only option really is to deepfreeze the feathered fucks. Least they deserve, but also a helluva waste."

"They wouldn't talk even if you did wreck their kneecaps, Jaybird. There's something wrong up there, man. And to think they actually want me like that. Who'd be around to see my shining personality then?"

Jay snorts. "The birds. They like shiny things."

Dick flicks oil at him, and waves his middle finger absentmindedly. "Up yours," he says, all smiles.

"Where will we start?" Jay asks, after a while. "In the maze, I mean."

"We came in the south exit, so I guess anywhere other than. You have a favourite direction?"

"It's south, 'cause that's where everything ends up going." That earns him a glare. "Alright, fuck, choose east. That could go either way."

"How come?"

"It rhymes with yeast. We're gonna end up with bread or a horrible infection, one of the two."

Dick wrinkles his nose. "What are you, twelve?"

"Older than you. Internally, you're, what, eight?"

Dick points an accusing finger his way. "I'm a mature young man who's traded in the fish-scale briefs for skin-tight Kevlar plating. It's state of the art, I'll have you know."

Jay scoffs. "I'm glad I switched to cargo pants."

"Because nothing will go aw-rye in those." Dick throws him an exaggerated thumbs up.

"Oh, god, no, stop-"

"I dough-n't know, Jay. I think you should leave these puns in the oven to rise."

"Please stop. Someone get me earplugs. Tyto, throw a grenade in my ear, anything. I'll pay the Court, even."

"Shit, I already used dough." Dick hums. "Anything rhyme with cash? Money? Moolah?"

"Enough, this is worse torture than the Talons could ever dish out-"

"'Dish' out."

"Leave me to suffer," Jay says, loudly. "Go east on your own."

"Aww, c'mon, buddy, I know you don't mean that-"

Chapter Text

"We need some actual preparation before we head east," Jay says. Then, he looks pointedly at Tyto. "Didn't the other drones drop supplies in the maze around this area?"

"See," Dick offers, insufferable as ever. "They do take care of us."

It's not that Jay's moping around, it's just that the Owls piss him off six ways to Sunday, and he resents that they'd choose him, of all people, to drag into their mess. He gets they're obsessed with the Bats, but honestly he can't guess what their game is. If they're aiming to sway him into following them by threatening his family, they haven't done their research, and if they're aiming to sway him into following them because they'll threaten his family, they really, really fucking haven't done their research. It's poor game. If they wanted someone moral, they should've picked Tim, and if they wanted someone who responded well to mindgames about family and bloodrights and whatever-the-hell-else, they should've picked Damian. He is the last person they need right now, and Dick is second-to-last, because he already fucking knows what they want him for.

Unless they're doing this to get at Bruce, in which case, their choice is half right and he'll give them a D-. Bruce cares about Dick, and he cares about not making the same mistake three times, not letting any other precious Robins die. Damian's already lost his chance, Jay lost his centuries ago, but Dick and Tim are still relatively unharmed. Relatively. Just. Why the fuck him?

"Stop it," Dick says, unimpressed.

"Stop what?"

"Thinking in circles. You'll go nuts." Dick shrugs and scratches Tyto behind a wing. The electronics in him whir a little louder. "Look at it this way, at least we're alive!"

"That is about the least reassuring thing I've heard in my entire life. And that's saying something."

"Just-" Dick extends a placating hand. "Hold up a sec and consider it. We're not dead; we're still useful to them."

"They almost broke Bruce." Jay knows they have mettle, that they're not weak-minded and simpering, but the Owls have this way of getting to you, worming their way into your head and sinking in their talons and never letting go. Bruce is still shaken from it, Jay knows. He'd never in a million years admit it, that the Owls legitimately threatened him, not because he hasn't got balls, but because they'd use it. They'd absolutely squeeze it dry, use every method in their arsenal to get him to bow, and Bruce doesn't need that. He has shit to focus on. Like not bowing to the Clown first.

"To be fair," Dick says, "Bruce knew pretty much nothing about them at the time. They threw him in blind."

"Do we look any more knowledgeable to you? I mean, they're rich, they want to use your body for some freaky shit, and they like world domination. Oh, and they hate the cold. That's an encyclopedia, right there, Dick, I'd recommend writing a whole ten volumes, plus some special editions, just to add a little extra spice."

"That's more than Bruce knew."

Sometimes Dick's positivity is comforting, something to lean on when shit gets rough and nobody else has any hope of fixing it. But it's also a gamble. He'll pull positivity out of his ass when he's running on nothing, just to make everyone else calm down, because when Dick Grayson loses hope, you're beyond fucked. It's not quite a steaming load of bullshit just yet, but Dick is still clammy and twitchy and looking over his shoulder every chance he gets. He's not sure where they stand when it comes to the Court, and he'd be right to think that. "It's like the difference between a glass of water and a glass of water with one single grain of salt in it. You can't taste the difference unless you've got some superhuman talent."

"Salt's got a pretty obvious flavour-"

"Look, you get my point." Jay sighs. "We're going after these supplies, don't get me wrong, but you have to consider, what if the food, the drink, the shelter, what if it's just for prolonging the inevitable?"

Dick crosses his arms. "I have no reason to believe that," he says. "If they wanted something out of us and didn't give a damn whether we were alive or dead to see the aftermath, we'd be getting tortured right about now, or we'd already have kicked the bucket. That's the truth. Whatever they're hoping to get from us? It's something we gotta give alive."

"Like our undying pledge of allegiance?"

"Okay, but were you planning on devoting yourself to them, or am I right in saying you wouldn't see it happen even if they had to dangle you off a cliff?"

"They'll use someone against us."

Dick fidgets. "I have faith they can fend for themselves. We're grown-ups now, we don't need coddling, right? You certainly won't take it from any of us."

"Damian is basically a toddler. They could fit him into a soda can."

A snort. "Don't let him hear you say that. He'd have your head on a pike."

"But it's true," Jay protests, frantic. "They're gonna leverage someone over us. They'll kill for it. They are literally fucking insane; they freeze your similarly acrobatically-talented buddies and turn them into feathery zombies. Who does that? What sane individual wears an owl get-up to intimidate?"

"Bruce gets himself to look like a bat to intimidate."

"And he's absolutely one beer short of a six pack. I mean, he's a fuckin' genius, but he's given his entire life to spooking criminals in a cape. He is not well-adjusted, or balanced, or even close to the role model of the average human being, Dick. And neither are we."

"So you're saying they'll screw themselves over and ruin their chances at all of the Bats' wealth of information just to get us to listen to them?"

"I'm saying I don't know what the hell they'll do."

Dick sags at this, and Jay knows he's won. It's a hollow victory.

"C'mon, Tyto, surely you've got something in your tin can brain that'll lead us down more than dead ends?"

They've been searching fruitlessly for a while now, and all the while, Tyto's been trailing them around, offering no insight or guidance. He has GPS or internal, built-in mapping or something buried in there, there's no way he doesn't, but so far he's shown them nothing.

"They looked like so many supplies when they were flying past us," Dick says sulkily.

"This looks like a big maze," Jay points out. And it is, fucking God, is it. Bruce pulls the patented I Don't Want To Talk About it card every time the Maze is mentioned, but it took him, by their standards, a long damn time to get out. He'd been messed up at the end, too -- really messed up, as bad as it got when Joker had a spot of genius. The Owls had blindsided him.

"They want us to find them, right? They wouldn't have made such a big show out of dropping the supplies if they didn't want us to get them."

Jay shrugs. "They're also crazy, so who knows?"

"I wish we could get a good look." Dick frowns. "The walls aren't narrow enough to let me wall jump, and I haven't seen a vantage point other than the top of the Fountain, and that's an enclosed room. I also wouldn't touch that thing if it paid me a million dollars. I'd slip and die."

"You're an acrobat."

"It's so extravagant I can't even see to the top. It'll be like climbing a redwood and then jumping off the top. I'm not a complete dumbass."

"I dunno about that." Jay wraps an arm around his shoulders. "Tyto here seems pretty tough. Maybe we could use him to carve a step into the wall."

Tyto buzzes straight over their heads, out of reach, and hovers above the marble like a cat in a tree. "He doesn't mean it," Dick says. "He's just pissy he doesn't have the upper hand."

"I'm not a liar; I'd sincerely like to kick a Talon's ass right now, but hey, what can you do?"

"You've got yourself a point. All we can do right now is just look around, I guess, and make sure to find ourselves a vantage point. And after... we're gonna find ourselves a way to get the upper hand soon enough, okay, Jay?"

"I don't doubt it for a second. Provided the supplies are, y'know, edible, 'cause otherwise the only upper hand we'll be getting is our own. After it's fallen off."

Dick raises a disbelieving eyebrow. "From malnutrition?"

"From being undead. The Bats don't die, so. It's zombies in your future, Circus Boy, sorry to say."

"Could be worse." Dick shrugs. "I'd already be dead, so I'd go vegetarian. And I could threaten our opponents with cannibalism, so, that's an upper hand if my body ever didn't have one."

"Your job at this point is literally just to find the bright side in everything, isn't it?"

"And to kick ass. But right now, I'm all out of ass."

"You're never out of ass," Jay snaps, but it's fond. "You are an ass."

True to his word, Dick is an ass the whole search. He doesn't shut up, for one. Ever. He spends all his time chattering away to Tyto, because the goddamn owl robot is such great conversation, and hums when he -- for a mercilessly brief moment -- runs out of things to say. For two, Jay is not even close to bothered, and that disturbs him.

Dick's in the middle of whistling the Sailor Moon theme song, striking karate poses at the enemy drone as it hovers alongside them, when Jay stops. Dead in the middle of the pathway is a burlap sack. "That's the worst cliché I've ever seen." He stares it down. "If we open it and there's a bomb inside, I'm going to spoon-feed them their own unoriginal bullshit medicine and see how they like it."

"Can we not jinx it?"

"Too little, too late, Big Bird. Asking not to jinx it will jinx it more," Jay says, petulantly, and leans down close enough to rest his ear against the shipment.

"Are you trying to hear it breathe or something?"

"I would be if you'd stop talking over it."

There's no sound. He pokes the sides, feels hard edges, something like a box, because Owls are paranoid enough to double-wrap their presents, or they get off on being as frustrating as possible. He wrinkles his nose. "Are you scenting it?" Dick asks.

"Yeah, y'know, so we don't get poisoned and die. 'Cause, really, that wasn't on my to-do list, last I checked."

"What if getting that close just poisons you faster?"

"Better than getting slowcooked and fed to the feathery Illuminati."

Dick cringes. "Wow, thanks for that."

"They don't want to hold our hands and tell us we are all one with the Force, Dickie."

"But we are all one with the Force."

"Get outta here with that hippie shit," Jay whispers, conspiratorially. "The aspiring rich kid ornithologists in tweed might find it offensive and start freeze drying your berries early, if you know what I mean."

"You are really with it today. The whole terrible images game, I mean."

"Thanks, I try."

He reaches down, face already curled up in an anticipatory flinch, and opens the bag. Inside the bag are three metal boxes. "What's in the box?" both of them say, at the exact same time, like something straight out of a movie.

"I didn't think people actually did that in real life until Damian and Bruce," Dick tells him, box number one held tightly in his hands as he inspects it for poison, gun powder residue, or whatever other hellish thing the Owls have lined up and waiting. "Those two are so in sync that I might even be a little creeped out."

"Yeah, I'm gonna fully admit to getting heebie jeebies whenever those two talk. I swear to God they're fucking clones, the both of them. Someone literally just put Bruce's brain in a second body, screwed it in, and hoped for the best." Jay mimes reaching in, taking said brain, and moving it to a new skull. "We're just nerds, though. Except my terrible references are ironic."

"Mine are ironic!" Dick protests.

"Don't kid yourself."

"Okay, I won't. They're not even slightly ironic." Dick shrugs. "I'm not apologising. Unironic references are equally as important."

Jay snorts. "That's just, like, your opinion, man."

The two of them sit in the hallway for a good ten minutes, petrified like stone trees, until Tyto starts to whir up loudly and pace back and forth, in his own little hovering way. Jay looks at box number one. "I mean, we're gonna have to open it eventually. I pride myself on jumping in head-first, so."

"I just don't wanna open it up and find someone's hand in there, you know?"

"Wow, it's low that you accuse me of the terrible images. I'm hurt, Dickie. Wounded." Jay holds a hand over his heart. "If there actually is someone's severed hand in there, I will kill you if you make arm-related puns."

"You might say you're prepared. Well-armed, even."

Jay smiles sweetly. "I hope the box poisons you first."

"I'll die a happy man." Dick shrugs. "Okay, well, there's no time like the present." Gently, he pries open the lid, to reveal two canteens packaged in Styrofoam that's cracking a little at the edges. Rough landing. "This is surprisingly not lethal," he says.

"Are we sure it's not laced with cyanide?"

"I mean, no, we're not sure. But that seems too Snow White for them, somehow. Okay, and to be honest and arguably a little morbid, I'm pretty sure they'd want us to die slower than that."

"Oh, boy, tell me another effective bedtime story to soothe me, why don't you?" Jay's half-hysterical, because Dick is absolutely right. Swift death by poison isn't below the Owls' elegance, but it is above and beyond sparing, in terms of horrific ways to get tortured. "I get more of the 'we're keeping you here until you pull a Donner Party, and then we'll sit back and let you live with that' kinda vibe from them."

"It's not like I wanted to sleep tonight, either." Dick rolls his eyes. "Hypocrite." Then, he stops. "Oh my God, if that's what they really want, it means you'd end up a... wait for it... A hungry hypocrite! I am a genius. I could kiss myself."

"I will have no regrets when I have to eat you."

"I taste fresh, like my rhymes."

"I'm begging for the cyanide."

Dick sits, contemplative, for a moment, prying the canteens from their casing and weighing them in his hand. "It doesn't take a genius to notice they're not full," he says. "So that means they still want us to use the water from the Fountain. But I'm not sure if that's supposed to be taken as a token of good will, a 'hey, don't worry, we're not giving you zombie drugs', or the exact opposite."

"Por que no los dos?" Jay snorts. "They're assholes. They're underhanded. I bet you my left ballsack they're offering peace and a threat at the same time."

"Seems like something they would do, yeah. I just keep thinking about all the ways we could be misinterpreting this, all the secret messages they're hiding that we've let fly under our noses." Dick holds up a canteen to his eye, waiting, almost, for it to betray him, to sprout tentacles and try to strangle him, or something like that. "It's not like I've never felt like that before. Hello, job description called, it wants the golden, engraved 'no shit, Sherlock' plaque back. I just- the Owls aren't just about killing me, trying to get me to spill info, not any of the usual stuff. They want to gut me like a pumpkin on Halloween and light me like a Jack-o-Lantern."

"Shit, I need to step up my terrible images game. That's inspired, and also I want to spew. Thanks."

"I don't want them to do that to you, too," Dick says, suddenly desperate, hand clenching down on Jay's shoulder. "I won't let them. I'd rather get my brains frozen into dust if it means you'll stay safe."

"Dickiebird," Jay says, mournful. "You're the Golden Boy. You have the legacy. I'm just the bootleg dead kid whose ghost can't learn to take a hint and go fuck himself. I've already been six feet under. Certified Y scar. You don't need that. Fuck, you don't deserve that. You're too good for it."

"And you deserved that, Little Wing? It's not- you haven't been on some kind of penance thing, have you? You don't think your contributions to this team haven't been completely invaluable?"

"I'm the cloud, you're the silver lining. That's how it's always been and how it's always gonna be."

"Bullshit, Jay! What the hell would any of us have done without you? If you hadn't have come back-"

"Grieved and moved on, because that's life, and it ain't fair, and it ain't pretty, but there's no changing it. Just rolling with the punches."

"I don't care who says it's impossible, if I want it to change, I'll do anything and everything in my power to make it happen."

"It's a lost cause."

"You know I'm all about lost causes."

Jay throws his hands up in sheer exhaustion. "Look, this goes both ways. If they try to put your mind in a blender and turn you into a protein shake, I'm gonna tie them up with their own puppet strings and break their beaks with the silver spoons they've had stuck there since birth."

"See? Terrible images. We're on the same page, Jay. We have different fighting styles, sure, but we're equals. We balance each other out, once you've got it all tallied up." Dick shakes his head. "And I'm guessing that also means neither of us are gonna budge on this. So I'll just say -- I don't have any plans on dying, and you sure as hell better not have any either, because if you think Bruce is a Mother Hen, you haven't even seen me."

Jay holds out a hand. "Pinkie promise. Stick a needle in my eye and all."

Chapter Text

The second box is a suitable counterpart. It's food -- gross food, granted -- but food nonetheless. It's packed neatly with various cans with oddly generic lables. "PEACHES", "SOUP", "CORN", "BEANS", it goes on. The Owls are rich, sure, and they like to show it off, sure, but he's guessing revealing their favourite brand of doomsday truther paranoia is too risky. Jay would totally take advantage, stupidly easy for someone with his moral compass, and probably still a breeze for Dick's squeaky clean image.

"Neither quality nor quantity," Jay says, regarding the faded tins with disdain. "Nice."

"I didn't peg you for a snob."

"No, but you know what I do peg? That these are thirty years old."

Dick opens his mouth like he wants to argue, but closes it shortly after. "Okay, good point. They're going for longevity, which means they're expecting us to ration this."

"Great, I didn't want more than one bean a day, anyway." Jay's had his fair share of food he's literally scraped off the dirty tarmac of Gotham's streets in his days, but also, that had not been a choice, and while he's always felt deeply uncomfortable at Bruce's effervescent and lavish dining parties, he's not so much of a masochist that he'll volunteer himself as human test subject for innumerable unnamed horrific diseases.

"It's canned; it's not gonna kill us," Dick offers.

"Look, this isn't the hill I wanna die on." Jay shudders. "Okay, I call the peaches."

"Oh, thank God, I cannot do tinned peaches. It's like the scene in Harry Potter where Ron starts puking slugs. They're slimy, they're gross, I really don't want them in my mouth, and they're both equally alive."

Jay's face curls up into a grimace at the vivid comparison. "Wow, way to put me off."

"I'm sure they're great, though," Dick volunteers, half-assed.

"Very reassuring, that's made it all better now, thanks."

With self-control, there's enough food for a month or two. But he doesn't trust self-control in times like this, where they could be getting drugged through their water supply, or through these cans, or honestly through the air they fucking breathe. He doesn't know how long they're gonna hold out like this, and he's not making estimates, because they'll be some cobbled-together bullshit, and the Owls have a raging hard-on for confusing them and running them around in circles like hamsters on a wheel.

He's still taking the food, but he's fully expecting to come out of this with malnutrition, some kind of poisoning, and any number of life-leeching parasites attached. He's furious that they're doing this to him, to Dickie -- hell, even that they did it to Bruce, as much as he wants to strangle the old man. The part of him that's still the Red Hood, still a mob boss getting Gotham's scum to run away like shaking chihuahua's with their tails between their legs, is a hairsbreadth away from all-consuming rage at the disrespect. But he's supposed to have put that part of himself behind him. He's a team player now, the local anti-hero and character foil. An example of how not to end up.

"Fuck this," he spits, savage. "Fuck this."

"I've got that same feeling." Dick sighs. "At least they're not feeding us artichokes."

"You like artichokes."

"And you, as a kid, used to call them 'fartichokes'."

Jay flushes. That's actually true. Trust Dick to remember. "Well, they taste like ass to me."

"And you'd know what ass tastes like?" Dick snorts.

"A lot better than artichokes." Jay regards him, fond. "You have anchovies on your pizza, too, don't you?"

"They're good!"

"You literally lack tastebuds."

"Dead and gone," Dick agrees.

He's not gonna trust the food, but he'll trust that the Owls probably want to run him around the hamster wheel a few more cycles before taking him out. He's hoping that he'll get lucky, and the only negative thing at the bottom of those cans is the fact that he's going to actually have to put mushed up, marinated corn chunks in his mouth, and not some sort of carcinogenic.

His stomach rolls as he moves the food to one side. He'll deal with it later. Preferably when he's so hungry he can lick the dirt off the floor and call it cinnamon. Right now, he has another box sitting right in his lap to handle. It's a little cleaner than the others, shinier like new metal, and Jay assumes it's the most valuable of their shipment. Carefully, he pries it open with his safely-gloved pinkie finger, and peaks inside. "Oh," he says. "That's anticlimactic."

"So, it's not a bomb, and we're not going to get, uh. Bombed."

"They could still stuff us into those tins and call us marinara sauce, but not through the use of explosions. Take a look."

Jay hands over the box, and watches as Dick reverently lifts up the first aid kid that lies within. "Oh my god," he says. "Wow. Oh my god. My horoscope totally said I was gonna get lucky soon. I kind of thought it meant I might get laid. This works, too."

"Well, thank our exploitative overlords who pray on the hopes of the desperate by offering them bite-sized and vague hints at good tidings," Jay drones.

"I'm sensing a lot of bitterness here. Probably more than 'My horoscope told me I was getting a puppy for Christmas one time and it actually took Bruce pretty much another ten years to get a dog, those filthy liars' levels of bitterness."

"My mom used to read them."

"Oh," Dick says, quiet. He stares silently down into the depths of sterilised stainless steel. "I can read fortunes, y'know. If you're ever feeling like getting predictions from not your old granny who works at the local newspaper."

Jay looks up, intrigued. "Did they teach you that in the circus?"

"They did indeed. Also, I just ran with it, thanks to a lot of misguided expectations. 'Cause my family were Romani, we had to be the traveling mystical fortune tellers, right? Honestly, surprise, surprise, but the hired professional was a bit better at that sorta thing. I just did backflips."

"Did the actual fortune teller teach you?"

"Yeah," Dick says, eyes going soft with the memory. He smiles, sadly. "Her name was Missy. She did the job better than me, but she was old, and I think she wanted an apprentice before it was too late to pass on her talent. And she got me to cover for her when she wanted time off. That's probably the main reason, thinking about it."

"You should teach me sometime," Jay tells him. "Or don't, because I'm telling Damian he has many shitty days in his future no matter what."

"Poor D! That's brutal."

"Once he switched the salt and the sugar because I implied he was too short to drive." His coffee had tasted like death. More like death than coffee usually tastes. He'd, with no hesitation, spat his drink all over the unsuspecting table in sheer horror. Then Damian had laughed hysterically and thumbed through a novel while Jay sponged up his own spit, cream, coffee grounds, and table salt.

"I knew you wouldn't stand to let Alfred clean it up," Damian had said. "Besides, it's minimal mess. How would you have taken it if I'd switched the chocolate sauce with the Marmite, Todd? Count your blessings."

Jay, to this day, believes they only even stock Marmite in the house for that very purpose. The Waynelet is heartless. Jay bets he doesn't even eat Marmite. Jay bets he has his toast plain, with no jam or marmalade or anything, and probably drinks his coffee black and eats pancakes without maple syrup.

"That's more brutal," Dick accepts. "Just for saying he's short?"

"Yep. I wasn't even that much of an asshole."

"But he is short." Dick looks honestly confused. "There's nothing wrong with being short."

"Tell that to my sea salt coffee."

"Oh, ew. That's just gross."

"Yeah, and nobody believes me when I say the little tyke is evil."

"And here we are, encouraging him to fight dirty. What does that make us, Jay?"

"Literal Devil's Advocates," Jay says. "Hey, look at that, new band name."

The first aid kit is modestly stocked. There's no miracle cure to all ailments hiding away in there, but it's not just a few bandaids and a get well soon card. There's a fairly substantial stack of bandages, antibiotic ointment, OTC painkillers, a needle and thread, hydrogen peroxide, and rubbing alcohol. Jay's not too sure why they'd need both, unless the Owls are implying they're going to be going through enough injuries to deplete more than one bottle. Actually, that seems like something they'd do.

"No Pepto Bismol?" Dick asks. "Wow, rude."

Jay turns the rubbing alcohol over in his hands. "Shots, shots, shots-"

"Don't use our medical supplies for recreational purposes."

"Why not? Plenty to go around." As much as Jay's joking, he's genuinely a little unsettled by the two bottles. Does the Parliament want them to get wasted? He's no Bruce or Tim, but he has enough detective instinct in him to suspect shenanigans. "Care to put your Golden Boy investigative skills to the test? I'm getting weird vibes from this."

Dick takes a good, long look at the bottle and hums. He examines it from more angles than necessary, and flicks a fingernail just below the scratched and faded label. Like the food, only a generic, unassuming "95% Ethanol" is printed in blocky type. No brands, no identifiers, just the most basic description of what's inside. Dick, however, seems fascinated by it. "It's sticky," Dick clarifies, at Jay's supremely puzzled look. "Below the label. It's been ripped off and replaced with a new one. And then the new one was probably peeled and moved slightly, from the looks of it."

"I mean, when was the last time you saw labels this generic? Outside of movies, before you come out with another unironic Dork Grayson reference."

"No, but... this seems overboard, even for paranoid sociopaths obsessed with covering their tracks. Something is straight up wrong with this picture, but I'm not sure what."

Jay glares at the bottle until the words blur beyond recognition. "Even if it's covered in anthrax, I'm still getting drunk off it. Especially if it's covered in anthrax, in fact."

"We should try peeling off the label. Slowly." Dick picks nervously at a corner. "If the back's covered in cut-out letters from magazines I'm going to give you a run for your money on that whole 'black-out caked' plan."

The back isn't covered in magazine clippings. Oddly enough, there's a simple message scribbled in black Sharpie, in what once would've been neat handwriting, before the glue started melting things. All it says is, "Enjoy the spare. Someone's looking out for you. Regards, -B. & Accipiter"

Jay squints. Whatever letters came after that 'B' are lost to the void. "Who wants a bet this guy named our little flying friend here?" he asks.

"I don't know whether to be comforted or disturbed."

"You remember what animals belong in this genus? Can I also bet they're feathery?"

Dick looks meditative. "It'll come to me, give me a sec. Bruce taught me all this crap for a reason. I thought bird puns, but I guess I was wrong."

"You take your time," Jay says. "We don't exactly have a short supply."

"Okay, I could be wrong," Dick hedges. "But... the second part is hawks?"

"Then what the fuck is the B for, d'you think?"

"More hawks?"

"Thanks for the valuable insight."

"No, seriously. More hawks. Accipiter is, like... goshawks. So, you know, not the full hawk spread."

"Why do you know this?"

Dick shrugs. "Ask Bruce. He seemed to think taxonomy was really important." There's a long, drawn-out sigh. "What the hell, man? Why does he always have to be right?"

That's a question Jay asks himself every day. He never gets an answer, and really, none could ever satisfy him. Bruce is just unfairly good at everything. And the stuff he's not good at? Average. Never bad. In terms of perfection, he's a worthy adversary against even heroes of Superman's calibre. "What's the name of all the B Hawks, then?"

"Give a poor overworked circus boy a chance, Jay."

Jay smacks his hands. "Chop, chop."

"Boot something. Byoot? Uh..." Jay looks unimpressed, and Dick points an accusing striped finger in his face. "Don't you get judgemental," he snaps. "It's like a foreign language. It's much easier to understand it than it is to speak it. I can pinpoint a classification if I have the name first. Otherwise, it's all Greek to me. Pun intended."

"Boots," Jay says, dry. "We're getting help from a guy named Boots."

"I really don't think that's the name he intended for us to use when he wrote that message."

Yeah. Good. He's the contrary kind of shit who will do literally everything in his power not to give the Owls what they want. Stupid, inconsequential stuff like nicknames thoroughly included. "Too bad. His name is Boots now, whether he likes it or not."

"You owe Boots some thanks," Dick reprimands. "And a beer or twelve."

He and Dick argue as Tyto leads them all the way back to the Fountain. At first, Jay had carried the burlap sack himself, thanking whatever luck he had left that there were gloves to separate his hands from all the dust ingrained in the material, until his hunger-weakened muscles were shaking from the effort. By then, Dick had insisted that it wasn't fair if Jay did all the work, and snatched the supplies right out from under him. After five minutes, Jay had taken them back, only to find Dick stealing them mere seconds after. And so on and so forth.

Tyto and Boots must have fittingly saintly patience to choose to be the patron saints of a couple of dysfunctional idiots in tights. Especially two dysfunctional idiots in tights who are currently duking it out over who gets to suffer the most.

"I'm gonna hit you over the head with the first aid kit in a fit of cosmic irony," Jay grinds out. "Just you wait."

"And I'm gonna be the one to spoon feed you thirty-year-old pea soup when your hands inevitably break from overexertion."

They are so busy arguing, in fact, that they don't notice Tyto's stopped until they run headfirst into his propellers. Dick is immediately remorseful. "Shit, I'm so sorry. What's wrong, boy?"

Tyto hovers like a deer caught in the headlights. For a moment, the air in the room is uncomfortably still, as Tyto seems caught between a life or death decision. Dick blinks. Jay swallows and his throat clicks, audible even against the hum of Tyto's internal mechanics.

Suddenly, Tyto veers off in a completely different direction, a straight ninety degree turn from their previous position. Jay doesn't remember making any such turns on the way over. "Oh, great," he offers. "Now the drone's lost it."

"Something's wrong," Dick says.

"Yeah, a bunch of rich people in owl costumes dropped us into a maze so they could whack it to our psychological torture," Jay spits. "And now they've sent their equally as mindfucked robot to ruin our bearings and leave us confused, alone, and conveniently far away from the nearest water supply."

"No," Dick replies, simply. "Tyto wouldn't do that."

"Dickie, you don't even know the damn thing. It's literally named after an owl. They own him. They built him! They shaped his little drone brain with their greasy wingtips!"

"Boots sent him."

"Maybe taxonomy is just an Owl thing," Jay protests. "Maybe Boots and Tyto are completely unrelated. Ever consider that?"

"Tyto led us to Boots' cache."

"The owls let him pack our oh-so-luxurious supply drop. It's hardly a cache."

"Even so, are you saying we just stumbled upon a drop that happened to have one of Boots' notes by accident? Bats aren't supposed to believe in coincidence."

It's not a coincidence. It's the fucking Owls. They're toying with their brains like a cat with a ball of yarn, just waiting for all their string to unravel. Soon they'll be rocking themselves to sleep on the floor, surrounded on every side by narrow passageways leading to absolutely goddamn nowhere, crying and mumbling nonsense. "Well, maybe his programming's overwritten by an Owl virus. He could be heading straight for the bomb that we were lucky enough not to find in our creamed corn."

"My gut tells me Tyto's on our side. And Bruce -- the guy who's always right, remember? -- is the one who honed those instincts. I'm not wrong, I just know it."

"We're gonna get brained by a robot dog-bird, and it's all your fault."

"I'm willing to take that risk," Dick says, firm, and walks on in Tyto's footsteps.

Jay crosses his arms, screams in frustration, and seriously considers becoming a recluse when this is all over. Maybe he'll turn to Jesus and devote his life to God's prayer, if only to get away from his maniac family.

"See if I still have a drop of love left for any of you when we get outta here!" Jay calls after him, desperately.

His joints ache. His hands are curled in such an iron grip around the supplies that he can no longer feel the tips of his fingers. He doesn't know how long they've been walking. He doesn't want to know. "We're gonna get lost," he says.

Dick angles his head over his shoulder to glare in Jay's direction. "We were gonna get lost the moment Tyto took off."

"Yeah," Jay says, slow, enunciating each word like a child trying to read a book aloud. Dick does not look pleased to be so blatantly patronised. "Ex-ac-t-ly."

"Every way this could've ended was the same way," Dick says, back to facing the endless hallway ahead. The pitter patter of his footsteps is suprisingly light, despite the heavy padding on the soles of his boots and the weight of his body armour. "We don't trust Tyto, go in alone, we get lost; we don't trust Tyto, go in and ignore all of his directions, miss the supply drop, get lost; we don't trust Tyto, follow him anyway, probably scare him off, get lost; we do trust Tyto, follow him, and not only do we get the drop, but we also get... whatever's at the end of this."

"Certain death. Certain death is at the end of this."

"Possible death is at the end of this. But Tyto's on our side, I can feel it in my bones."

"Oh, you mean ones that are gonna get broken when hundred-year-old circus zombies wipe the floor with us?"

Dick waves him off. "Please, we're way better than them, anyway."

Jay's not sure he'll ever be ready to fight the undead, not when he only narrowly escaped the same fate. Even without the coordination of the living, they're still dangerous. Bruce had once spent an entire day lecturing each of them on zui quan -- drunken fist. The art of using the momentum of drunken stumbling in your favour. The zombies could break his face.

Dick has a wealth of experience to fall back on, his entire memory of the circus aside. He can read intent where Jay is blind, dodge the kind of blows that would stagger anyone else, fight fire with fire. Jay will be too busy on the defensive to even consider gaining the upper hand.

He doesn't say any of this. He's all talk when it comes to getting Dick to change his mind; he'll complain, but he'll never push. It usually ends with a broken nose after accidentally going too far. It takes a lot to get Dick angry, but with the right needling, he's an efficient machine.

That's all fine and good when he's not on the receiving end. But when it's your leg you're watching bend backwards with a crunch, your stomach getting slammed with an escrima stick, it's a different story, and not one Jay's keen on getting told.

When he was Robin, he once had the pleasure of meeting a thug that Dick had gone up against when he was twelve. At the first flash of green, red, and yellow, the man had whimpered like a kicked dog and gone scrambling away with colt legs, picking himself up only to eat shit again seconds later. Jay had grabbed him by the ankle, hoping to get some kind of explanation. He still remembers the sound of the man's nails digging in and scraping against the cracked tarmac; it makes him sick. By the time Jay had pieced together a story through sniffling and sobbing, the guy was too scared to stand up all together.

Apparently, he'd been a serial rapist before a petty thief. Dick had caught him in the act, found him unrepentant. The piece of shit had brought out all the classic comments -- called him a pretty boy, threatened him, told him he'd like it -- and Dick had been unaffected. Then he'd said something different, something worse. Something he'd tried not to repeat. Something that had left him crawling away with two legs broken clean in half, his fingers shattered, and a jaw crooked enough to be a cop. Jay had asked, "What the fuck pissed off Robin enough to do that?" But the man had just shook his head, frantic, and cried hysterically.

"You gonna fuckin' spit it out, or am I gonna have to squeeze it out of your snot-covered carcass?"

"I asked him who designed his costume. Asked if it was his idea and his boss was as blind as his namesake, or if he wore tight green panties and learnt to be so flexible 'cause daddy told him to. As soon as I mentioned the Bat, he snapped. It was like he got replaced with a whole different person."

The memory of it is clear as day in Jay's mind. It was the first time he'd ever seen Dick as more than a perfect angel, forever infallible in Bruce's eyes. It was also the first time he'd stopped trying to deny how much he respected Dick, and everything he'd done.

He'd stood in the cold, wet fog, shining against the flickering streetlamp, and laughed, wrenched out, staring down at the blood staining his hands and wondering if he was really the only Robin with a dirty record. Then, he'd spat in the man's face and left him there alone in the alley, soaking in a puddle of his own piss and dirty rainwater.

He never told Bruce a thing.

"What's got you so glued to the ground? C'mon and move it, slowpoke." Dick jostles his shoulder, grinning. "We have a hidden treasure to find."

"Yeah," Jay says. "But when this doesn't pan out, I'll hate to say I told you so."

"In your dreams it won't. When am I ever wrong?"

Jay scoffs. "Sir, are you aware your pants are on fire?"

"As if," Dick tells him, and winks. "I am an innocent, pure flower. I have never lied in my life." He ruffles Jay's hair. "Everything's gonna be fine, okay? You just sit back and watch the show, Little Wing. It's time for the Flying Graysons' star act."

"Sure thing," says Jay. Sure thing.

Chapter Text

Five minutes later, Jay can hear the screeching of metal. Dick goes pale, then furious, and races ahead, a quickly retreating silhouette in his vision. He's really attached to the damn thing.

Jay doesn't trust Tyto for a second, but he's their only source of direction in this hellhole. If he gets damaged, extracting all the files in his memory will be too time consuming for them to afford. If the hunk of scrap has run himself into a wall, Jay will personally see to it that the drone and his deceptively innocent puppy-like manners are decommissioned.

It grates on him how much they've come to need Tyto, how easy he's become to lean on. That's always the first step in disarming people, making them stupid and complacent. Then you pull the rug out.

There's something about the maze that makes it feel like the halls are endless. Dick's only been out of his sight for twenty seconds max, but the way the maze zigzags and turns stops him from seeing either hide or hair of anyone. He can hear Dick's bootsteps, so close he can taste the kicked up dust before it settles, but he can't see anything. Deafened, he would have no reason to suspect he wasn't completely alone. It reeks so perfectly of the Court that he wants to be sick.

Ten seconds later, the hall births him out into a small, cramped little room, no bigger than the size of one of Bruce's more modest walk-in closets. There's another door on the opposite end, but it's bolted shut. Jay stares over Dick's shoulder and finds Tyto ramming himself into something else flying, a whirring black blur of motion. "What the fuck is that?"

"It's another drone," Dick says. "But they're fighting."

"Thank you, Captain Obvious. Why the fuck are they fighting?"

Dick shrugs. "How should I know? They were like this when I got here."

Tyto has no face, but the way he's buzzing around is angry, Jay can tell. Either the other drone has done something untoward that only Tyto, with a functional connection to their little hive mind, can puzzle together, or the sin committed is simply existing. There's no cache drop attached to their new guest, and Jay hadn't seen any signs of one on the floor on the way here. The closet they're in is empty, save for its recent occupants. For all Jay can figure, the drone has zero reason to be here except to survey undetected.

"You'd think Tyto would be okay with more of the Owls spying on us," Jay says.

Dick scowls at him. "No, you wouldn't."

"Are we... like, gonna do shit? Or are we gonna sit with our thumbs up our asses and let your new best friend get his wings clipped?"

"No, look," Dick says, waving him away. "Tyto's winning. By a large margin, actually. Impressive. Most impressive."

Jay looks closer. Tyto has maybe one superficial scratch that he can spot. The enemy drone is a sparking wreck, flying crooked by at least 30 degrees, and there's an unpleasant smell of melting plastic. "Wow. He destroyed it. Isn't there a punishment for vandalising work property?"

"Tyto's a free agent," Dick says proudly. "I told you so, I'm right, no takebacks infinity, that's final."

"And they said you gave up being Robin because you were too grown up," Jay muses.

"I did." Dick walks up to the enemy drone, and so ensues the weirdest staring contest Jay may have ever seen in his life. Then Dick highkicks it against a wall and sighs. "I'm using it to fix the tech in my mask."

"Didn't you sleep through all of Bruce's engineering classes?"

"Nah," Dick says. "That was Babs. She knew it all already."

"Guess that's why they didn't take her. She'd have hacked into the mainframe and gotten us an army of drones by now."

Dick snorts. "Are you suggesting they took us because we're incompetent?"

"Honestly? I think it's a statement about the size of their ego. We're detectives, and they've made the greatest mystery of all time. A maze that drives bats mad. They ran the Master through this hamster wheel already, so now it's time for his Apprentices. The ones with the longest history, too."

Dick tilts his head. "You think it's our history that brought us here?"

"Your blood and your famous -- or infamous, probably -- talent guaranteed you a spot here. They just chose me as your partner because, let's be real, Tim's too smart, and Dami would trash the place."

"You seriously undersell yourself, Jason." Dick cradles what's left of the drone in his arms, briefly mournful. "I think they chose you for a different reason." They brush shoulders. "Maybe it's the determination, the stubbornness that even Bruce can't outmatch. Maybe it's that me and you, we're night and day. We're full coverage. What I lack, you've gained, and vice versa. Maybe it's that you're the only genius in the family that refuses to admit it. Me, I've had the longest of all of you. Tim speaks for himself. And Damian's head is the size of a hot air balloon. But you." Dick stares, like he's looking through Jay, not at him. "You think you're just a fighter." He laughs and looks away, scratching the back of his neck. "Or maybe it's all of those things. Maybe it's none of them. And I know you don't like to talk about your feelings, but those potential reasons -- they're all true."

Jay's speechless for a moment. Then, "You are such a Robin, it's ridiculous." Awkwardly, Jay goes in for a sidehug. "Thanks. I guess I needed to hear that." He grins. "Maybe the Court chose us to fix our relationship problems."

"That's bad news for them. How do they think we put our attention spans to use when we're not fighting each other? The crossword?"

"I don't think they know we spend time not doing that. Our dirty laundry has been aired all over the city at this point. In fucking space, too, if you count angry calls from Bruce at the Watchtower."

"The 'I'm not here to supervise you, but that's probably a good thing because you'd all be dead if I were actually around to see this travesty of a mission' calls."

"Or even the 'I'm proud of what you've done, but the stick up my ass is really itching and I can't find it in myself to dish out any praise other than a few pained 'good job, teams' because that might actually mean I have emotions and nobody's allowed to know that' calls."

Dick raises an eyebrow. "And Harley's supposed to be the psychologist."

"She better not quit her day job. I'm here to take over."

They balance the salvaged drone parts between them, not quite equally. Dick is a circus acrobat, balancing is like breathing to him. Jay in the meantime is probably going to break the one part it turns out Dick needs the most, knowing his luck. Dick seems to trust him, though, humming happily to himself, a literal skip in his step as he's wrapped in wires and decorated in sleek metal. He follows Tyto along to what he assumes is the Fountainroom, and while Jay will admit the path looks appropriately familiar, conceding to any Owls, no matter how much they've pledged to secretly help out, skeeves him out.

He wants to know Boots' motives, because life's taught him people generally aren't in it to help people for purely altruistic reasons. Most of the time, they want something. In Jay's experience, they want him to take out a hit, or tail someone for extortion, or scare a few dollar bills out of some indebted lowlife. But in this maze, they've got limited options -- skill, blood, and how much Bruce is willing to give up for them.

Everything and nothing, is what.

Boots could want to take down the Owls as much as they want to rule them. From a hastily scribbled note, Jay can't make any conjecture.

"You sure you know what you're doing?" Jay asks, gesturing to their payload.

"It's just a little soldering here and there, replacing a few wires. Then I'll be able to get it back online. I mean, there won't be any connection back to the Cave, but it can do a little mapping of where we've been, and that's kind of a big deal in a maze."

"Yeah, kind of a big deal."

It eliminates one of the many, many ways the Owls could have them killed down here. No more running them in circles until they starve. They'll stay put to waste away, instead.

"Don't do that with your face," Dick says. "It'll stick that way."

"Do what with my face?"

Dick scrunches up his own melodramatically and groans like a put-upon teenager. "Go away, I'm angsting," he moans, and then laughs at himself. "That face."

Jay throws up his hands. "We could die!"

"We could always die." That gets Dick a glare. "Okay, we could die more than usual, but we've got someone on the inside, and my mask."

"Yeah, a psycho who's sent their robot and a can of pea soup to win us over, instead of, y'know, actually getting us outta here."

"I'll admit they probably want something from us, but that's better by far than getting toyed with by the Court until we break." Dick shrugs. "They seem to have a vested interest in keeping us alive."

"But not necessarily sane."

Dick snorts. "When were we ever?"

As soon as they reach the Fountain, Dick sits cross-legged on the marble floor and starts singing loudly. It's some horrible, generic indie pop song that makes Jay want to cry lovingly over his billion classic rock albums. But he knows all too well that Dick works best when he's belting out something some middle-aged man wrote for a sell-out teenybopper group. Oh, baby, nondescript love who could literally be anyone, but especially could be you, the tween listener with eight posters on their walls, you are so vaguely beautiful in ways that could apply to anything breathing, I love your personality traits that everyone has, oh, baby, I love you, and that's the general you, the plural you, but also the singular you, because I'm only talking to you, baby, one of my twelve million listeners, but I don't know which one.

That's what it was like all through Jay's training as Robin. Bruce was all silence, course correction, telling him in weirdly precise anatomical terms exactly where he'd gone wrong on that kick, or that punch, or that elaborate backflip, but Dick was all touch, all feeling. A hand adjusting his pose here, a slight hipcheck there, all while humming something that made Jay's ears bleed. Bruce ran on some strange and unknowable internal rhythm, and Jay learnt to read minute ticks in his body for his tells, when he would dodge or hit, but Dick was always dancing to the beat on the radio, blocking and swiping in time with the music. Bruce's fights were narrated by the click of his throat when he was about to perform a good sweep, Dick's by someone's cheesy beatboxing.

It used to comfort him. Where Bruce was hard to get a read on, Dick was a pleasant kind of open. Never easier to get the grip on, but willing to smile about it, make you feel like you weren't so inexperienced, so lost in a world you didn't think you'd ever get to set foot in.

So he shuts up and starts looking around. He's not Tim, but he's done a fair amount of detective work in his day, and he can honestly say even knowing what the dust tastes like is a step up from the not-so-blissful ignorance they're suspended in. There's nothing the Owls love more than confusing their prey, and Jay isn't particularly (or ever) in the mood to feel hunted.

The statue that bleeds water into the basin below is too tall to see up completely. What they've got on ground level seems vaguely like feet, bird feet, scaled just enough to call back to their reptilian ancestors, but that's all. There are, dauntingly, more stories than Jay is able to count up there. There's no conceivable way up from here, the way up is sheer and smooth and doesn't have any convenient safety nets. A fall from that height would smash them like a porcelain doll, little pieces of their lives scattering over the tile. He has this terrible feeling like they wouldn't even be the first to meet that kind of fate down here. Not after seeing that coin, or the state of the place.

The room itself opens up into directional hallways, where they've been led like obedient dogs. There's the small stash of supplies at the foot of the fountain, a few feet away from Dick, at the three o'clock to Dick's six. That's all that's immediately obvious. What interests Jay most is the statue. It's the only thing that could possibly yield footholds that let them climb. It's old, more prone to wear and tear than the walls around them, and could maybe, if they were very lucky, be more easily carved.

It's then that he notices there's something under one of the statue's clawed toes, something that shimmers slightly in the light like plastic. Unceremoniously, he clambers in.

Dick pauses. "What the heck are you doing?"

"Look, there's something on the statue." He shakes a hand, water droplets flying and spattering Dick's face. It makes him look too much like he's crying. "It's, like, a plastic bag or something. See?"

"Sharp eyes," Dick says, impressed. "Almost hawklike."

"Shut up and help me grab it before I roll these eyes out of my head."

A grumble. "Thank you, Dick, you're welcome, Dick."

In a move showing off his grace and flexibility, said master wordsmith sets down his work and contorts himself close enough to snatch what's hidden beneath the giant talon. It is, in fact, a plastic bag, with a note inside, and one other thing. A scratched up Batarang. Jay blinks. "What's it say?"

"'Missed me? You'll need this later. They'd have asked blood payment, but I'm generous. -B.'"

"Boots has been here," Jay says, horror clenching in his gut at the dawning realisation. "They're willing to hand-deliver. And able to."

"At least there's a guaranteed way out," Dick offers. "The Batarang is very ominous. I don't wanna think about what the Court would have made us done to get it, or why we'd even need it in the first place."

And it's dissonant, a bit, to hear that out of the Golden Boy's mouth, that the symbol of the Bat could in any way scare him. Jay always looked up to Bruce as Robin, was always in awe of him, trying to impress him and exceed his expectations. But Dick looked to Bruce like a friend, would tease him and slap him on the back and call him out on his bullshit in a gentle sort of way. And Bruce took it, he always took it, despite wearing an ever-constant expression of distaste, free from the constraints of human emotion, from feelings blocking the way to logic. Dick's never seen Bruce like Gotham's underworld has seen Bruce, not like Jay has. Dick's never had reason to be afraid of what the Bat can do, never felt the rapid beating of his heart at even the smallest movement in the shadows, or seen the toughest mobsters descend into hysterical sobs in the face of a man dressed as a harmless flying mammal.

Bruce has always had that power, to turn a symbol no more threatening than a Halloween decoration into something that makes grown men cry.

"It's a weapon. People generally tend to use weapons to defend themselves." Jay side-eyes him. "From attackers. Aggressive attackers that want to kill us."

"It's also a tool," says Dick magnanimously.

Jay crosses his arms and huffs. That's just like him, always the fucking optimist. "To open our cans of pea soup?" From this place, he'd have pictured they'd have to crack their teeth on the tin first.

"Maybe so. Nothing about this is supposed to make any sense, to be fair."

Yeah, that's the problem. Jay's mind is filled to the brim with images of them having to engrave Court symbols into their arms for the world to see, or ending up thrown into some sort of battle royale, maybe some sort of gladiatorial arena. Or perhaps they'd have to write apologies or declarations of allegiance into the pristine marble with their blood. Boots is doing them a very, very large favour, and they know it. "We owe Boots a whole shittonne more than I'm even remotely comfortable with. It's getting to the point where I don't know if we should actually accept their help next time." He pinches the bridge of his nose. "And there will be a next time. People like this don't stop when the going's good, not when they can squeeze more out of us."

Dick sighs. "What other choice do we have? We're backed into a corner, here, and Boots is the only one willing to offer a way out. Clearly the Owls want us to suffer to get what we need."

"And Boots wants us to owe them. But we don't know which one is worse." Jay growls, overwhelmed by possibility. "Jesus Christ."

"I'm not saying it's smart, but it's all we can do for now. If we starve a little slower, we have more time to think. And more time for me to fix things." Dick waves his mask. "I'm making progress. Or, at least, I think I am."

Jay pointedly doesn't reply to that. Instead, he sits down, rests his head against his knees, and waits uselessly like he's been doing since he woke up here. While his partner does all the work, all he can do is try to tune out the sound of flowing water, before it drives him mad. He's half-way there already.