Chapter 1: Brute Beauty
She was in love again.
It hadn't snuck up on her, the way it had with John. No. This time it had fallen on her in one fell swoop like a raptor from the skies, one glorious burst of awareness that had stolen her breath away and rendered her helpless before his shrewd assault. She had lost that round badly, but it had been hard for her to care.
It wasn't the same as it had been with John. It didn't have that warmth, the softness and tenderness she had known with him. It didn't have the aching weight of that love. This feeling was harder, fiercer, tinged with need. It came more from the hawk than the woman, she thought, but she was both, and didn't mind. It made her blood sing and her heart soar, and that was so much more than she had ever hoped for again. It was enough to feel it, and never risk his knowing.
It was the training that started it. The training that made it. She doubted they thought she knew it, but the others held back with her. All of them, save two. With J'onn and Superman, she knew it was instinctive. They had held themselves back all their lives, on earth at least, for fear of hurting someone. Flash, of course, simply didn't have a mean or ferocious bone in his body, until you threatened someone he cared about. And generally speaking, training didn't do that. John ... that was a whole other issue, and one she wasn't keen to talk about. No. The only two who fought her blow for blow, with intent to win, were Diana and ... him.
There were the others, of course. The newbies, as Flash called them. And she did train with them. But it lacked the ... the connection, the pride, of training with the old crew. It wasn't the same as training with family. And even if it was a family she'd betrayed, the family she'd failed, the Justice League was still her family. And she wanted to fight with them, hard and fierce and proud, as a hawk should.
So she sparred most often with those two. And with him most of all. Because in her heart, Diana still had not forgiven her betrayal. Because it showed, whenever they fought, in the strength and vindictiveness of their blows. And sometimes she craved that, the catharsis, the power of two strong women beating their grudge into the dust, in preparation to stand beside each other against a common enemy. Sometimes, she could see how Diana craved that too. But for the times when the grudge was too much, she fought him. The Batman.
He did not harbour a grudge. Or if he did, it was expertly hidden. But neither did he hold back. He was the closest to her, maybe, in terms of strength, in terms of vulnerability. They both lacked the raw power the other five wielded. They both had to make up for it with skill, with technique, and with raw ferocity when it was needed. And that was what they piled into their training bouts. Skill, technique, and ferocity.
That was what she craved most.
He was good. He was the Bat. Of course he was good. But when they fought, he let it show. When they fought, they pushed each other to the limits. They held nothing back. They couldn't. Both of them were all too aware of the other's weaknesses, and both of them took swift and punishing advantage of them, both of them strove to compensate for them, both of them strove to push the other beyond the reach of an enemy's grasp. No holding back. No sympathy. No room for sympathy. They had to win. Because it was the only way to survive. Neither of them had the powers to fall back on that the others did. And they both knew it.
So there was method in their mutual brutality. There was a reason for the ferocity that had everyone abandoning the training rooms as soon as they saw the pair of them enter. There was an excuse to put up in the face of J'onn's consternation, Superman's ill-hidden disapproval, Flash's hesitant attempts to calm them. But that wasn't why she did it. It wasn't her reason, her real reason.
Her real reason was that it was fun. She loved training with the Bat. She loved the power of it, the simplicity beneath the science, the rush of strength and adrenalin through her every time she saw him come in behind her and get ready. She loved the push for survival, the elemental thrill of fighting for her life that somehow he gave her, while at the same time knowing that he would just as soon die to save her. She loved fighting him. And now ... now she loved him.
She couldn't help it. It was something deep and instinctive, something that rose up from the part of her that was hawk, the part of her that even now, even after centuries of evolution, simply yearned for a mate, for someone strong and fierce enough to fly at her side. Someone to pull her fighting and bloody from the sky, and make her his.
She would never tell him, of course. He was not hers to have, and to him their training was just that. Training. A way to keep ahead of the enemy. A way to stay alive. He did not embrace the thrill of it as she did. He did not surrender himself to the pure thrill of the fight. He couldn't. There was a monster inside him, where the hawk rested with her, and he would forever guard against it's escape. But despite all that, he was still beautiful in battle. Even if he did not embrace the thrill, he commanded the movement, the science, the flow of the fight. He mastered it's power and brutality, the keen edge of survival. He flew.
With rope and muscle instead of wings, but he did fly. Instinctively, automatically, she could see him calculating airspeed, distance, drag, lift, momentum, wind vector ... all the science of flight. Everything she knew in her bones, every instinct of her people, she could see in him, striving to be released. He was a creature of the air, born without wings, and the injustice of it tore at her. Of all of them, he deserved flight, and of all of them, he was denied.
Not that it stopped him. It was a long-running struggle between them, her ability to fly. It was her greatest advantage, her aerial ability. It gave her far greater range and far more avenues of attack. Conversely, once in the air, she needed space to manouver, sufficient airspace for turns and dodges, while he could move in a much tighter fashion, and make better use of terrain. But that didn't negate the fact that a lot of the time, she was simply out of his range. He had to wait until she got in close, or make use of his projectiles. And he did make good use of them. A time or two, a shot of his had knocked her out of the sky. That was one of the areas they focused on for improvement. By now, she could counter most of his shots, provided she saw them coming. He still managed to sneak up on her, circle until he saw an opening. But she had vastly improved.
As had he. He'd had a lot of practice, fighting things that flew. He was growing more inventive, taking to the air more to fight her. In the indoor bouts, where he had objects to climb, to use to propell himself into the air with her, they spent a lot of their time trading actual blows in the air. His manouvering advantage was negated, but in close combat he was deadly. And beautiful. So very beautiful.
Those were her favourite fights. In the air. Face to face. Blow for blow. Dodging. Weaving. These fights. This fight.
Her mace, striking his support from beneath him as he ran. His weapons, scything through the air as he turned at bay. The rush of air under her wings as she pulled up, gained height, denying him close quarters on the ground where he excelled. His line, snaking out to lift him into the air after her. Her mace, breaking it. His foot, whipping past her face, having calculated her move. Her wing, coming around to clip his shoulder. His body, flowing beneath hers as he fell. His hand, catching her foot to pull her after him.
The branch, catching her wing as she fell, tearing it. Tearing into her wing.
She screamed. She didn't mean to, but it was a deeper instinct than she could fight. Pain in the wings overruled everything. Damage to the wings was the death of any Thanagarian. The fear rose within her, clawed it's way up through her. Not of death. She could face that. But the fear of the fall, of the loss of the sky. Her wing. Her wing.
The air rushed around her as she fell towards the ground, and the sensation sent panic spiralling in her mind. She was still screaming, still caught in the tearing grasp of that fear, when she felt arms wrap themselves around her from below, as if to pull her into the ground. She twisted, fighting, but the motion sent pain shooting through her damaged wing, and then she couldn't think at all.
Because they hit.
The impact juddered up through her, lifted her a little away from her captor before she fell back again, those arms tightening instinctively as beneath her someone's gasp of pain was sharply cut off. She was limp for a minute, dazed and panicked, before she started twisting again, fighting. She had to get away. She had to, before it pulled her back beneath the ground, into that coffin that the dream demon had sent her to when he stole her wings. She had to get away ... had to ...
"Hawkgirl! Hawk-umph-girl! Shayera! SHAYERA!" His voice cut through her panic, a cool snap of command that demanded she obey. His voice. His.
She stopped fighting, falling limp and shaking against him, her breath coming in sharp, juddering pants. Her wing flopped uselessly beside her, every spike of pain a reminder of the terrible, looming possibility that she might never again ... No! Stupid, stupid thought! She hadn't even checked yet! It could be nothing, a minor tear. This fear ... the memory of this fear ... this loss ... It was no more than that! Just a fear. Just a fear. Thanagar, so strong a fear ...
She felt movement beneath her then, as he regained his breath and began to move out from beneath her. The motion hurt her, but not nearly so much as the loss. No! Don't leave me alone with this! Don't leave me to fall alone!
Not again ...
But he didn't leave. He didn't even fully pull away. He simply pulled himself from beneath her, as gently as he could, easing her down to lie on her back on the training room floor. She shivered with its touch, with reaction, and watched his face come into view. Those white slits were narrowed in concern, that fierce mouth thin and angry. He leaned over her, took her face between his hands, that intelligent glare cutting straight through her eyes to the fear beneath. He saw her fear, and his hands went soft around her face.
"Shayera," he said, harshly gentle. "I'm going to look at your wing." He did not add further instruction, not against her fear, but she could see the command in those veiled eyes. Think. Breathe. Control yourself. And she tried. Warrior born, she fought the fear beak and claw, and surrendered herself to this man.
Turning his attention to the damaged wing, Batman's eyes narrowed, his focus zeroing in like the hunter she saw in him. But unlike the hunter, his hands as they moved to explore the injury were gentle, cautious. He smoothed torn pinions out of the way, traced the bloodied tear gently, his bearing fierce and attentive. And as she felt those powerful hands move over her wing, the most precious, vulnerable part of her, she couldn't help but shudder in reaction.
He froze instantly, looking back at her face in concern, and saw something there that she hadn't been able to hide fast enough. Some glimmer of what she felt for him, a shadow of the passion, the need.
He tensed to draw away. She could sense it, sense it as a warrior senses the intentions of their opponent, as a hunter senses prey, as a woman senses mate. She saw his retreat coming, and rejected it. Torn open, sick and riding on the adrenalin of fear and fight and fall, she refused to allow it. She surged up to meet him as he crouched over her, seized hold of him against the scream of pain that thundered through her, and kissed him.
She kissed him. Fear and pain and power and need, ferocity and passion, tenderness and love. Everything she had left, everything she could give. The need of the hawk for mate, the yearning of the woman for love. All of it. All for him, in that one instant.
His hands, which had jumped instinctively to her shoulders to ward her off, changed their grip. Loosened in surprise, then tightened around her with something else. A growl built in him, rejection and yearning all at once, tore loose from his chest and poured into her through that shared kiss. His nature, brutality and gentility paired, wildness and restraint, seared through her and crested above her heart.
The kiss ended. The surge of adrenalin fled, leaving her shivering and wounded, helpless before him, hopelessly in love. She drew in as deep a breath as she could, almost sobbing with the loss of him, the knowledge of his rejection pounding as deep and terrible as the pain in her wing. But she couldn't accept defeat. Not like this. Her pride, her own ferocity, rejected it, and she looked back up at him. Glared at him, challenged him to deny her. Dared him to see her broken heart.
She should have known better than to dare the Bat.
He met her heated gaze, her proud heart laid bare before him, and said nothing. Instead, he let go of one shoulder to reach up. To take hold of the mask that hid his face from her and pull it slowly back, a revealing as terrible and meaningful in its way as any Thanagarian unmasking. She caught her breath at what it revealed, at the blue eyes that burned with an inner fire, at the stern profile that inclined itself gracefully towards her.
"Shayera," he said, quietly, regret and determination and need. "Be sure. Be very, very sure."
"I am," she answered, instantly, absolutely. Her commitment was complete, a hawk to the flight, a warrior to the death. She had no more room in her heart for the slow and cautious love she had once known, the gentle settling of weight on her chest. She could only offer ferocity, completeness, love, blood and air and battle. She could only offer everything that was left of her, and hope it would be enough.
He stared down at her, a war raging behind his eyes, knowledge and fear and desire and compassion, and then, an instant before they settled into determination, there was love. A faint flash, a gentle softening, and then the fierce determination of the man masked it beneath the weight of a decision. But it lived in him. She saw that, and when he dipped his head the second time, infinitely gentle, she felt it. Pride and understanding, anger and fear, passion ... and love.
"Alright," he whispered, resting his forehead against hers, his hands cupping her cheeks. "Alright." And she wept.
She had fought with him, lived with him, learned from him. She had betrayed him, hurt him, almost destroyed his world. She had loved another, failed another, left too many pieces of her heart with that other. She was not whole, coming to him. But she was herself. She was fierce and bloody and torn from the sky to land in his arms. She was damaged, and he accepted that.
He cradled her for a long time, holding her against the pain her sobbing caused. His face was bare, stern and open and free, and his dark wings covered hers and sheltered them both in a private eyrie. When she stopped, exhausted and quiet, he scooped her up, gathered her damaged wing gently up, and carried her to the infirmary. No-one questioned him. No-one dared.
And when it was finished, when J'onn's gentle and efficient hands had eased the pain of her wing and the fear in her heart, he leaned in. Bruce, Batman, blue eyes bright and fierce, savagely beautiful.
"You will not fall alone," he said, so very quietly, taking the fear that had lived for so long in her breast in his hands and crushing it. "Never again. You will not fall alone."
And when she slept, and the dreams came, and she fell helpless from the sky ... his arms wrapped around her from below, and dark wings swept up around her in lieu of feathered ones, and in the nightmare darkness of the earth blue eyes remained to show her the sky and call her heart to soar.
It was enough.
Chapter 2: Fierce Fragility
More than one kind of healing, more than one kind of fragility
He came into the infirmary about ten minutes after she did, even though he'd hardly been hurt at all. Certainly not enough for the Bat to voluntarily seek medical aid. But she'd known he would come. He always did.
She didn't look at him when he came in. Her wings were stiff with fatigue, her back ached where she'd strained a muscle, and her shirt was sticking nastily to her because of the blood from her shoulder wound. She wasn't in the mood for his silent scrutiny, wasn't able to contemplate the training he'd put her through as soon as she was fit to counter the mistakes she'd made this time around.
But more than that, she wasn't able to bear the concern she knew would lie behind his blank white stare. She couldn't bear the gentleness that waited behind his anger. Not now. Not anymore.
He wasn't going to be ignored. She should have expected that. Batman was never ignored unless he wanted to be. But she was so tired, too tired to stir when J'onn quietly took his leave, too tired to care that the Martian laid a comforting hand on her good shoulder before he went, too tired to look up at Bruce as he came to stand before her. Too tired even to brush his hand off when it came to rest lightly on her chin, and bring her eyes up to meet his.
He stared down at her. Batman. The Dark Knight. The fiercest, most ruthless, most singularly unsympathetic man the League had. He looked at her, and his grim features softened.
"No," she whispered, a chill running through her, a shudder of old fear, old pain, old guilt. "Don't. Please. Please don't, Batman." Not Bruce. Not the man. Give her the Bat, please. Give her the warrior, the strategist, the hunter inside the man. Not the lover. She couldn't face him.
Bruce tilted his head to one side, his eyes narrowing, growing sharp and piercing. Hunter's eyes. She nearly sighed in relief. But his touch refused to roughen, refused to be anything but gentle as he traced her cheek lightly, and she flinched from him in reaction.
"Tell me why," he demanded, calm and merciless. "Explain." She shook her head wordlessly, and his grip tightened, just a little. Not hurting. Not even threatening. He wouldn't do that. He still wouldn't. But it was a command, and something in her, something tired and hurt and alone, still so very alone ... that something could not deny him.
"Don't be gentle," she asked, softly. Not begging. She had more pride than that. To her last breath, she had more pride than that. But her voice shook around the words. "I can't ... I can't live up to it. Not anymore. I can't ... I can't be worth that. Not now. Please, just don't."
He stared at her for a long moment, his white eyes blind to the warrior, piercing down through her soul to the woman beneath, to the weary, hurting woman she was inside. She shuddered in recognition of what he had to see, of what he had to feel. She was so weak, now. So ... incomplete. Damaged. Don't give me tenderness. I can't give it back.
He moved, then. He stepped back, away from her, and turned to the side. She let her shoulders slump, ignoring the flash of pain through the one, left cold by his absence. The air seemed chilled, suddenly. Bereft of the one warming presence she had left. It was nearly enough to shatter her proud resolve, nearly enough to make her weep. But she was made of stronger stuff than that. She would endure.
She always did.
"Shayera," he said, quietly, and she turned her head in surprise to stare at his stiff back. He didn't look at her, his hands busy where she couldn't see, his movements the deliberate, economical ones she'd come to know so well. She could just see the edge of his profile beyond the rigid line of the mask, the proud jut of one prominent cheekbone beneath the black material that covered it. Stern, unyielding. Her hunter, denied to her.
She swallowed thickly, forcing her hoarse voice out past the lump in her throat. "Bat ..." she started, but that was wrong. She didn't know why, but she knew it was. "Bruce," she said instead, and nearly shook with it.
He turned to her, a bowl of water in his powerful hands, a sponge ready inside it. She flinched, but he ignored that, laying the basin beside her on the examination table and picking up the sponge. She tried to shake her head, tried to ward him off, but he was implacable. And when she moved to get off the table altogether, to try and leave, he dropped the material to seize her wrist, pulling her to a halt. His grip was firm but still, still, it wasn't harsh.
"Let me go," she said quietly, watching the floor unblinkingly.
"No," he answered, calm and damnably gentle. She wrenched angrily at her arm, trying to pull free, ignoring the sharp jolt of pain the motion sent rocketing through her.
"Let me go!" she hissed, wounded and demanding, nearly undone by pain and fatigue. "Bruce, let me go."
He didn't. He did not let go. Instead, he reached up with his other hand, and gathered her smaller one into his. He took her hand gently from where it lay clenched at her side, keeping careful hold on her other arm, and raised her fist to his own cheek. "Look at me, Shayera," he demanded, softly, a quiet instruction. She didn't want to, didn't want to meet those knowing eyes, but the command in that gentle voice ... "Look at me."
Batman smiled down at her, a quiet, serious little smile. Her small fist lay over the razor edge of that fine, fragile cheek, the proud angle of his features ever ready to accept a blow, ever ready to take the pain and fight on. The weakest of them, him and her. The most vulnerable, the most fragile. Her mace could shatter that face, if she came upon him sleeping, wounded, dying. She could wound him, as she could wound no other among them. His hand, overlaying hers, black and firm and strong. The strongest hands she knew, the gentlest weapons she had known.
"Shayera," he said again, and she met his eyes. He gazed down at her, brutality and gentility paired, weakness and impossible strength, and his eyes were smiling behind those white lenses. She could feel them. His hand moved over hers, gently uncurling her fist, gathering her thumb to place it softly beneath the lip of his mask, where she would have put it if it had been her place to remove that mask, to strip the strength from him, the hunter, and leave only the vulnerable man. He smiled at her. "I trust you, Shayera," he whispered then, accepting the shocked jerk of her hand against his face. "I trust you."
She made a sound. She wasn't sure what kind. A stunned, agonised exhalation. No, you can't. You can't. Not you. You don't trust anyone. There's no-one worthy of your trust. You can't give it to me.
But he could. He did. This man, this hunter, who trusted no-one, gave her the one thing in the world she had yearned for, the one need that ran deeper within her even than her need for love. Smiling softly, the love radiant in his face, he lowered his hand, leaving only hers pressed against his face, leaving her all the power she needed to kill him, if she wanted to. His eyes, his temple, the soft point beneath his jaw ... he was hers. More than that ...
Shaking, crying silently, unable to stop, she did as he asked. She pushed upwards, curling her trembling fingers gently around the edge of his mask, and started to push it away. Slowly, agonisingly, she bared the face beneath, holding his honour, his strength in her hand, to do with as she would. The Batman, hers to take or give as she pleased. All he had fought for, strived for, pushed himself to become. The warrior, the hunter.
His blue eyes shone down at her, revealed, and there was such love in them, such trust ... Biting her lip, shaking her head against the tears, she stroked her hand down over his temple, brushed her thumb beneath those vibrant eyes, caressed that firm, unyielding jaw. He smiled, and didn't move, his face open to her touch, his heart open to her need. Tears fell in steady, silent trickles down her cheeks as he released her other hand, and she brought it up to join the other, to trace it over those beautiful, savage features. Her hunter. Her mate. Her lover.
"Bruce," she whispered, fierce and broken, so fragile, so strong. "Bruce. Please. Please." And he understood.
His face didn't move, even as his hand reached to the side and found the sponge where he had left it, found the water, moving deftly with the confidence of trained memory. She smiled through her tears, and held still as he began to move the soft, damp cloth over her bloodied shoulder, his eyes never leaving hers. Her hands stroked his cheeks, brushed his eyelashes, traced his lips, the only part of her that moved besides her heart. She cried, and smiled, and when his cool, powerful fingers gently peeled back her shirt, brushed over her breasts, her thumbs pressed fiercely into his cheekbones as she gasped. He kissed her fingertips as he cleaned her, as his hands cupped her, moved behind to caress the sensitive bases of her wings. He stepped in close, bowing his head a little so she could keep hold of him, smiling as he stroked her.
"Shayera," he whispered, hoarse and growling and unutterably gentle. "Shayera." It was question and demand and offer, all at once. Everything, at once. Trust and need and love. Such love. His hands offered her tenderness, and his face accepted it back in turn, his eyes open, his heart bared. Her lips peeled back from her teeth, a feral, adoring look, and in one shuddering motion she swept her wings up around him. Exhausted, trembling, her soul of the skies spread for his hands to touch, her vulnerability opened to match his. And he touched her, moved powerful fingers through the feathers, the brutal strength of him leashed to tenderness as he held her life in his hands, and gave her love.
He laid her down on the table, eventually, her wings spread beneath him, the water falling unregarded to the floor. Her hands left his face, eventually, replaced by her lips, her tears, her burning regard. Her heart opened to his, finally, fully, as she remembered what it was to be worthy of trust, of gentleness.
They lay together, wounded warriors, and the fierce fragility of that union filled all the empty places in her heart.
Beyond them, invisible, the Martian smiled gently.