To the world she will only ever be "The Princess." He believes in the power of names to guide and define, and he guards his wife's name more closely than the secrets of the League, because that way she belongs to him alone.
He remembers her touch, gentle but firm as she plied the tension from his shoulders every evening. He can hear her giggle, soft and sweet, and remembers the way she would squirm beneath him when he rubbed his stubble against the soft skin of her thigh. Her compassion, burning high and bright, gave him something to believe in, and her smile followed him everywhere, granting him strength. When she looked into his eyes, he could feel the depths of her devotion, but he did not comprehend it. He may have been a mercenary hired by her father for brute strength, but he was her servant, tripping over himself to do every small nothing she asked of him.
He had been Henri Ducard then, but when that name grew weak he shed it like dead skin. He is Ra's Al Ghul now, The Head of the Demon, and his name alone strikes fear in the hearts of the most hardened of men.
Before the girl turned up, it was easy to feign ignorance. He convinced himself that rumors of the Princess' imprisonment were nothing more than lies forged to draw him out of exile. But staring into the face of a child who grew up in darkness with no one but murderers and thieves for company, he can no longer pretend he didn't know any better. Confronted by the ghost of his Princess' face, he becomes Ducard once more, saddled with responsibilities he doesn't know how to carry. This girl, thin as a rail and strong as an ox, is his chance for redemption.
But this man, this thing that Talia begs him to pull from the Pit was something else entirely. He finds the man, bound and shivering, barely holding himself upright against a crumbling wall, waiting for death to claim him. Ducard's first instinct is to provide that relief, but Talia's pleading voice becomes one with her mother's, and he offers a hand instead.
When the Temple medics cover the wretch's face with a mask and hook up the anesthetic, they warn him to ration, to use only what is necessary to survive. Any more than two canisters in a day could be fatal. The image is so grotesque that Ducard can barely look at it without shuddering, and he thinks again that perhaps it would be kinder to end the misery. Talia seems to hear his thoughts, stepping between them and fixing Ducard with her mother's stubborn glare. He cannot deny her anything.
The students at the academy give the monster a wide berth, letting him settle into place before they dare to move around him. He carries the stench of gore and death everywhere he goes, but Talia dances around him without a care in the world, embracing and mocking the darkness he carries on his back. She orbits him, leaping from shadow to shadow like she belongs there, showing him every outlandish and unlikely facial expression she can pull, just because he can't. He responds with a twinkle of his eye or by tossing her small body over his shoulder, leaving her to shriek with laughter and kick in vain at his chest. When one of the older boys mistakes her comfort with the monster as approachability, the poor soul ends up in the infirmary for a month.
The girl is only a few years younger than his wife had been, but she is the absolute antithesis of her mother - blisteringly cold in all the ways the Princess radiated warmth. Her temper unleashes itself in terrible bouts of cruelty. During her first month, Talia put her fork through a man's hand for reaching too close to her plate, and the only sound in the mess hall besides the high, hollow screams of her victim is a dark metallic laugh.
Ducard hopes to channel her rage into more constructive pursuits, so he hands her a knife to teach her how to how to wield it properly. Instead, she slices open the practice dummy as if she had been doing it her whole life. He sends her into the mountains to build up endurance, but they do not have a route charted difficult enough to tire her. He sits her down to teach misdirection and deception, but when he cannot find her for a second lesson he decides he has learned no skill that is not her nature. Finally, he gives her a sword and sends her to train with the best swordsmen in the world. When she wins her first match against three of the most talented students at the monastery, it is not to her father that she looks for approval, but to him.
She may be his daughter, but Ducard is not her anything.
He opens his eyes and he is a young man again, the warm desert sun streaming through the window, and a light breeze fluttering the curtains. He's had this dream many times before, relived this memory, and it's always the same. His Princess stands with her back to him, a silouette against the rising sun. She sings a song that he has not heard in years, her voice wrapping him with warmth and kindness. It sinks through his body and settles in his bones - this is how he wants to remember her. The Imperial Guards will break into the room to arrest him soon, but for now he has peace.
At least, he would if he could see her. He wants to see her face - he needs to see her face.
"And you need to stop thinking of ways of killing the boy, Henri," his wife says suddenly, somehow still humming her melody. "His only crime was caring for her, and look what it got him. He cannot escape revulsion and disgust, even yours. He lives in constant agony. And yet he loves her still."
Their conversation is different now, since Talia arrived. The script has changed and he no longer knows his part in it.
"He is not human. He may have been a man once, but no more."
"If this monster would give his life for a child he has no reason to care about..." She turns her head and looks at him with Talia's face
He wakes suddenly, an old man again, the question on his lips, what does that say about me, when I would not?
The song hovers for a moment, lingering above him like a ghost and a chill sweeps through him - his Princess is in the wind. He grapples for the melody with his ears, trying to pull in her sweet voice one more time before it fades for good. When the lyrics falter briefly, then start up again, he realizes that it had been Talia's voice the entire time.
He finds his daughter sitting on her bed, one leg tucked beneath her and the other outstretched. The monster is curled up with his head in her lap. His body is entirely bare except for a pair of loose shorts and the belt holding his anesthetic. He convulses - once, twice, three times - and succumbs to violent shudders. His breathing under the mask is ragged and there's a steady hiss of escaping air. A periodic hollow ka-thunk betrays the near-emptiness of the canisters. There are refills on the bedside table, but there are still four hours until sunrise and together they are nothing if not survivors. The creature lets out a strangled sob and clutches Talia's leg so hard that it must be hurting her, but she simply folds herself around him as best as her tiny frame allows and clutches him to her chest.
A few moments pass but Ducard cannot tear his attention from her. Her thighs display a smattering of bruises, and not all them are fresh - in fact, most of them are several days old. This is not the first night that she has comforted him in his agony, he realizes with a start. They hold each other in the shadows, at home in the raw emotion, no strangers to suffering. The weight that she carries on her shoulders is not a child's burden. She is not a girl anymore - but perhaps she never had been. An image springs to mind, unbidden, of their bodies writhing in the dark in a very different way, and suddenly he can no longer breathe.
Talia does not acknowledge her father's intrusion, but he knows better than to assume that he is unnoticed. Her voice wraps around the Monster in waves, curling around them both. As she sings, Ducard finds that even his wife's voice now eludes him. He tries to remember how her lips formed around the words, but they are replaced by words spoken by a child to her monster. He looks at the pair in the darkness, and can see tears staining their faces. He hates them both.
Ducard sends her out with the other students to collect Blue Flower one morning, and pulls the thing aside before he could follow her.
He sees the rage flash through the monster's eyes when he delivers his demand - leave, or you both will have no home. Ducard fights the instinct to step back, but the threat is gone almost as quickly as it appeared. The hulk of a man only slumps his shoulders and leaves one final request: Keep her safe.
Ducard says nothing.
"What did you do?" She spits each word at him like venom, and Ducard cannot help but flinch. She starts throwing her belongings into a rucksack and is fully packed in a matter of seconds.
"He left, Talia. He's gone."
"He would never just leave," Talia doesn’t say the words that come next, like you did, but he hears them anyway.
"If he's such a good man, why was he in the Pit?"
He sees the answer flash in Talia's eyes but she doesn't tell him. Instead, she sets her jaw and tilts her chin up, looking down her nose at him. And - oh. He could not have been more wrong - there is everything of her mother in her. Her devotion burns hot and dangerous, but not a spark of it is for him.