The owls had almost consumed him. That was his first thought, his first gut-souring realization upon waking: the owls had nearly choked him down whole, but he was still alive. He wasn’t positive if he was proud of the fact or ashamed: was it better to have survived the gullet, or was survival not enough to constitute a victory? Had he survived at all, or had he been reduced to indigestible bones and kevlar hide and merely regurgitated by the parliament?
The Bat wasn’t sure. Couldn’t be positive of anything, as disoriented as he was. He mapped out the inside of his mouth with his thick, sluggish tongue. His gums were swollen and tender, the taste of his own blood nearly enough to make him gag.
“Bruce? Master Bruce?” A low, crisp voice asked, making him roll over. The small movement was agonizing, his reaction impossibly slow. He was drugged. For his own good, he surmised as his eyes adjusted and Alfred’s face came into focus. The old butler was sitting in a chair by his bed, his hand clasped loosely around Bruce’s wrist. Bruce recognized the familiar pattern of the veins worming over the back of his hand and relaxed. There was no question that it was his friend, his caretaker, his mentor-father-butler.
He tried unsuccessfully to swallow, dry lips pulling over his gummy-sour teeth as he grimaced instead. Alfred quickly stood, helping him lift himself into a sitting position before he brought a glass of water to his mouth.
“Just a sip, my boy. Careful, now. You’ve been under for some time.”
“How long?” Bruce rasped, taking the prescribed sips. He hadn’t survived the owls just to choke on rancid saliva and warm tap water.
“Today is the tenth day since you were found in the sewers, and the twentieth since you went missing in the first place,” Alfred said, keeping a hand on his shoulder. The weight of it was impossible. “You have suffered an acute selenium poisoning---truly, the first hours were touch and go. I imagine that you have much to catch us up on.”
Selenium. Probably in the water in the vast, owl-topped birdbaths. Bruce had feared that it might be tainted, but he hadn’t had a choice---it’d been drink the water or die of advanced dehydration. The selenium was a fitting touch, dovetailing with the brittle humor the owls had shown. Selenium was necessary in small doses, named after the moon; owls and bats both drank water that reflected the moon. Bruce cudgeled his brain for more---more memories, more information, just more---but only got the rattling facts and the itchiness of his dried-out eyes. Treatment for selenium poisoning was intramuscular doses of dimercaprol---injections of nineteen to thirty-two mgs for a man of his weight---administered every four hours for two days, every six hours on the third day, and then every twelve hours for ten days. A labor of love and sleeplessness, as regular and necessary as feeding a newborn. It didn’t surprise him that Alfred had done it himself.
Bruce rubbed a shaky hand over his face, feeling the rasp of stubble. He breathed in and out three times, careful and cleansing and measured.
Yes, he decided. Yes, he had survived.
“It was the owls,” he croaked, grimacing at the sound of his own voice.
“Ah, yes,” Alfred murmured, eyebrows arched. “You’ve had no shortage of incoherent, owl-related gibberish to share with us. We’ve held out on parsing feverish nonsense from fact until after you regained full consciousness.”
“Bruce! Thank god,” Dick said with an explosive sigh as he popped his head in the door. He smiled widely, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Bruce noted the tremor in his hands, though he crossed his arms over his chest with a buoyant laugh. “I think that you’ve officially caught up on all the sleep that you’ve missed in the past decade. How’re you feeling, boss?”
Bruce just gave a gravel-thick grunt in response, stretching.
“He feels terrible,” Tim said in a sharp undertone, appearing at Dick’s elbow. “Of course he feels terrible. Why did you even ask him that?”
“Because sometimes, I tell myself that maybe today will be the day when I get a whole five minutes of civil conversation out of Bruce Wayne,” Dick said cheekily, squeezing Tim’s shoulder. “A necessary self-delusion, you see. I hate to think that all of my excellent wordplay is being wasted on a less than captive audience.”
Dick was scared. His voice was stripped of its usual bounce, the playful pause and cadence---he was speaking rapidly, with a strain on the vowels. He did that when he was scared; Bruce had learned that in the first day that he’d known the boy, and it held true even though he was a man, now. Tim was more reserved, more difficult to read. He hung in the doorway, pale and drawn. He sucked nervously on his lower lip and his cheeks hollowed out.
Tim was---was taller? Thinner. Older? No. It’d only been twenty days.
Bruce rubbed his eyes, taking three more measured breaths.
“How is he?” Tim asked, directing the question at Alfred instead of him. “Is the---”
“Out of my way. Move. Now. Move out of my way, Timothy!” a high, faintly accented voice snarled. Tim twisted, shoved aside as a boy pushed past him---Bruce didn’t miss the way Tim flinched, a little reactionary spasm. That only came from a perceived threat---strange, considering the size of the boy.
He couldn’t have been older than twelve years old, dressed in a plain black turtleneck and slacks. He had dark hair, carefully combed back from his forehead, olive skin, and startlingly blue eyes; he rolled his small hands into fists, making the thin, pale scars peppered over his knuckles stand out.
The boy’s jaw was set, his posture rigid. He looked at him expectantly, his lip curling. He sucked his teeth derisively.
“Tt. That was foolish. You owe the GCPD a new signal, you know,” the boy said. RP English, but with a faint accent behind the accent that he couldn’t quite place. “‘Siggy’ burned out trying to rouse you.”
Dick rested his other hand on the boy’s neck, rubbing soothingly with his thumb. It was the same kind of familiarity that he gave Tim---almost. It went a little deeper than brotherly. The boy leaned into his hand, dark brows bunching with his frown.
Bruce looked questioningly at them all, feeling his chest tighten.
Something was wrong. It’d been more than twenty days. It’d been years---it had to have been. The tension in Dick’s shoulders spoke of a heavy weight that he’d carried for too long. Tim’s eyes were guarded, his smile packed down. There were new lines in Alfred’s face.
And there was the boy. The boy with the very blue eyes and scarred hands.
“Who brought him here?” Bruce growled, pushing himself up further. He fought for clarity; he had to pinpoint what had happened, following the evidence to the answer of what the owls had taken from him.
The reaction rippled through his family. Tim released a soft, horrified woof of a breath, like it’d literally been knocked out of him. Dick tensed, his hand tightening on the boy---and not a moment too soon, either, because the boy coiled up and lurched at him.
“Is this another of your tests?” He snapped, blue eyes livid. He twisted, trying to get Dick to let him go. “You’re joking. You must be joking. You---I swear, I did all that I could do! Ask them---ask any of them! I tried to find you! I kept vigil! I did all that you asked of me! You left me behind!”
Bruce’s throat tightened. “Dick, is he---” He swallowed thickly, his tongue still coated. “---yours?”
The boy went limp, strings cut; he sagged, like Dick was suddenly the only thing holding him up. He shut his mouth with a click of teeth, eyes widening.
“Christ, Bruce,” Dick said, his voice flat and soft with horror.
“Master Bruce, perhaps you require more rest,” Alfred said quickly, a blatant attempt at damage control. The three dark-haired boys were staring at him mutely.
The owls had taken something from him, hadn’t they? They’d been successful. They’d changed him---snipped and clawed and tore until they’d proved their immutability by altering his story. That’s what the maze had been about---what the whole thing had been about. They’d ran him until his brain had jostled in his skull, memories and identities scattering like glass marbles.
He’d lost them. Memories. Marbles. Birds snatched up bright objects to line their nests, and owls stole nests, and Gotham was their new roost, and Gotham was his, so they’d plucked out his marbles and used them to line their stolen city. He hadn’t survived. He’d been regurgitated, necessary parts consumed.
Bruce’s chest throbbed, his overtaxed and poisoned heart struggling with the rush of adrenaline.
“You’ve forgotten me then, have you?” the boy hissed, folding in on himself. The hatred in his voice was scalding. “Of course. You don’t want to remember me. You never did. I’ve done everything you asked of me, but it’s never enough! You’d erase me, too! You’re no better than her!”
“Richard,” Alfred started to say, but Dick cut him off with a nod and a mutter of, “I’ve got ‘im.”
Dick scooped the boy up, holding onto him tightly. He fought, straining and hitting Dick with painful-sounding thumps of fists meeting flesh. It wasn’t the ineffectual, open-palmed slaps of a child having a tantrum---the boy was hurting him, lashing out with bruising strength. Tim tried to grab his arm, but he caught an elbow to the nose for his efforts. He swore---Tim swore?---cupping his hand to catch the blood. Alfred moved from the side of the bed to help mop up his face, his features pinched.
“You daft old man!” The boy howled, his chest heaving. Dick pinned his arms to his sides, but he continued to scream and struggle. “You ass! I hate you! I hate you! I wish you would have stayed dead! I liked you better when you were dead!”
The burning throb spread up Bruce’s throat.
“C’mon, Little D,” Dick said quietly, soothingly, the muscles in his arms standing out hard from how difficult it was to keep a hold on the boy. “It’s okay. Calm down. ‘S gonna be okay. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Breathe. C’mon, D.”
Abruptly, the boy went still again. He caught Bruce’s gaze and held it. His small, strong body shook, and a hot flicker of recognition shriveled up Bruce’s lungs.
He recognized his eyes, finally. He’d had to reach far, far back to find it and connect it with the violent child in front of him, but the resemblance was uncanny.
He’d seen those eyes in the mirror, the first night alone in the manor with Alfred. He’d seen them when he’d washed his face and brushed his teeth, going through the motions of being a dutiful son, a good boy, though he did it with only the most limited audience.
They were the eyes of a boy who had suddenly, painfully realized that he wasn’t anyone’s son anymore. It was a loss that couldn’t be unlearned, a knowledge that yawned and gaped and bled. They were the eyes of a child rendered motherless, fatherless, and utterly lost.
The boy blinked rapidly, curling into Dick’s neck with a sound that was too raw to be a sob, too rough to hold tears. He just sounded wounded.
Dick took the boy away. Alfred took Tim to get him cleaned up.
Bruce stared at the ceiling and tried to figure out what else the owls had taken from him.