Chapter 1: Beginning.
He was going to die.
He was going to die and he knew it.
It was the end and no one was going to convince him otherwise.
So there he laid, trapped under a steel beam, left leg crushed, right shoulder pierced, blood slowly, oh so slowly leaving him, making him cold, sleepy.
He was going to die.
He closed his eyes, ready for the inevitable – would someone, anyone other than Kon and Bart cry for him? Would any of the bats cry for him? He really hoped they didn’t – and idly hoping his mother would not be so upset he went ahead to meet her and his dad before he had become an old man himself, when the shrieking laughter of a child forced him to open his eyes, wincing.
“You really are ready to die,” the kid said, tilting his head. “You always have.”
“Really, Klarion?” he whimpered, his mouth feeling dry and mothy with parched blood. “Not the best time.”
The boy wizard twirled in place, eyes full of delight.
“Actually, the one Robin who succeeded, I think this is the perfect moment!” he said, waving his fingers. “I have not forgotten how you saved me and yet spared me when your little friends wouldn’t have.”
“I was twelve, Kon was two and Bart five, kid,” Tim coughed, paling. “Times have changed.”
“You really have no idea the weight a debt has on a magic user, huh?”
“Not really in the mood, Klarion.”
The boy-witch scowled, a pout pulling at his lips.
“Nah, you can’t die on me, I will repay this debt,” he growled, his teeth bared in a snarl as his small fingers started conjuring. “And I’ll be free and I’ll stop watching over you! It’ll be awesome!”
Tim tried to ignore the way purple and red haloes seemed to surround them both as the witch continued to cast and chant, all the while muttering to himself whether he could take Tim with him, move him from the plane or simply de-place him for a moment.
“You are not gonna like this, but I don’t think you’ll mind, not in the way that matters, I’m gonna put you faaaar away, where no one will be able to touch you, where you will cause no ripples and yet will find your way,” he continued to chant. “And only within your heart will I place that which will take you home, how does that sound?”
“Sounds like a really bad riddle,” Tim mocked, he was tired, he was so tired and cold, and sleepy, he just needed a few second, just few more to have his eyes closed and….
“Oh no! Open up!” Klarion scowled. “No wonder the realms agree you are a particular pain in the ass.”
“Just shut up,” Tim sighed, feeling peace spread over his body, under his skin. “I can’t believe the last thing I’ll see is your ugly face.”
“And that’s all the thanks I get for saving your life, huh?” the Witch Boy sighed dramatically, fingers glowing. “Ground Rules, Robin who succeeded: You cannot create ripples for the moment you cross paths with one of them, you will cease to exist, you cannot call the name of your family in askance of assistance for you will displace those around you, and you will remain until your heart bursts from your chest and only then will you leave my protection. That should give you enough time for the Failed Robins to be reached by the inevitable ripples and act accordingly, huh?”
Tim tried to force one eye open, struggling with a heavy eyelid, but the light surrounding them was too strong, the wind swirling too fast, the cackle of energy was deafening and in the middle of it all, Klarion’s maddened laughter was the perfect echo before Tim finally lost consciousness.
When he was able to open his eyes again, Tim realized he was hot.
Scorching hot, actually.
Also, his shoulder was bandaged and his knee was in a cast.
…. Also… he wasn’t in Gotham anymore.
Unless Gotham had grown a desert in the middle of Kingston’s Park overnight and the merciless pseudo-Mediterranean sun had decided to beat over the usually reddish clouds that covered the city.
“How… did I get here,” he growled, maneuvering his healthy arm to cover his eyes.
“It is what I would have liked to know,” a smaller, higher voice asked to his right, immediately propelling his body into action, pushing the agony of his limbs to the back of his mind as he prepared for an attack.
His shoulder protested with pain, pulling a high-pitched squeak from his lips and forcing him to his knees once more.
Tim blinked, eyes wide.
He hadn’t had taken this little to reach the floor in years, gravity not-withstanding, and his voice hadn’t sounded like that since the last time he had burnt himself with the pan, during those late nights while he still stalked batman and robin on the….
Slowly, he brought his hands towards his face, noticing with mild panic that his fingers lacked the callouses he had gained from his years on the field, that his nose was no longer lightly crooked to the left due to a unfortunate run in with Clayface and that the faint scar that used to kiss the corner of his lip –courtesy of Dr. Isley – was completely gone.
“You are a strange one,” the smaller voice whispered again. “One with your injuries should not be moving around so soon.”
Tim raised his face from his knees – oh, god, his bony, boy-ish knees, he hadn’t seen them in years – and finally felt his world fade from consciousness and reason all together.
No wonder Klarion had warned him about ripples he might cause, and existences he could be threatening.
He was in a desert, injured, but alive.
Younger, smaller, weaker.
And a five year old boy was calmly sitting in front of him with an ornate sword barely resting on his small lap.
A five year old with eyes as cold as ice, a face as hard as steel.
“Da… mian…” he whispered, before the heat, the pain, the adrenaline and the exhaustion seemed to be too much for his skinnier body and he collapsed back onto the mattress.
The echo of Klarion’s maniacal laughter being the only sound to penetrate the darkness behind his eyelids.
What had he gotten himself into?
Chapter 2: What?
When he woke up again he was once back on his mattress, a cool, wet cloth gently smothering his eyes and forehead and rough little fingers were pulling at his shoulder while, apparently, trying to dress it back.
He felt his lips twitch.
“So you have awoken,” Damian spat, his fingers pocking at his skin with spite.
Tim winced, slowly sitting up this time while keeping the cloth over his face.
He would take all the time he was allowed to regain his composure.
“Where am I?” he asked, his own voice so annoyingly high that it made him wonder how was it that Kon had never complained about it.
Then again, Kon’s voice had been really high too, when they were young.
Yes, he was going to stave off the panic attack with random. He was good at random, random was his friend and would help him distract himself until he was settled and alone and safe enough to afford a full on breakdown.
“You are in my camp,” Damian replied, a soft huff marking his annoyance as he seemed to read Tim’s own body language enough to push a small cup of water into his hand. “Drink.”
“Thank you,” Tim rasped, slowly drinking his fill while trying to taste for any foreign substances on the water and feeling oddly puzzled when he found none. “I was thirsty.”
“I am not surprised,” the child – Damian, five year old Damian – replied, slowly pouring more water into the cup. “I am not sure how long you were under the sun before I found you.”
Tim nodded gratefully, drinking once more.
“You mean before your parents found me, didn’t you?” he asked, trying to avoid the most obvious questions and, by that extension, Talia’s wrath.
Because if Damian was there, all five years old of glory, Talia was certainly nearby.
“No,” Damian corrected. “I found you. My mother did not accompany me in this journey, as it is customary.”
Tim let the cloth fall from his eyes then, his face a complete mask of shock.
“You are alone in the desert?” he asked, horrified.
“So are you,” Damian retorted, his chubby face doing nothing to hide the ruthlessness in his gaze. “And considering the last five days I have nursed you back to health, I must say I am proving myself much more resilient than you.”
Tim felt something uncomfortable settling at the pit of his stomach.
“Five days?” he asked, hoarse.
The child nodded.
“I found you dehydrated and delirious in the desert,” he added, proud of his accomplishment, apparently. “I have spent the last week nursing you back to a small semblance of health.”
Tim clenched his hands on his soft blankets, dead pooling cool against his spine, under his skin. Apparently whatever Klarion had done to him had sent him as far away from Gotham as possible, both, physically and dimensionally, if he could trust his gut feeling about time-travel – and yeah, time travel was a bitch, he had hated it when he was a child and hated it even more now – then…
Idly he remembered Zach once commenting that running against the Ripper was one of the hardest fits of magic one was capable of performing, and required many forms of cheating and pitfalls in order to be accomplished, which was the reason magic users never, ever, ever tried to cheat death itself.
Because it meant that to escape death, one had to run from the physical and the dimensional, the spiritual and the divine.
Now he understood why he was so concerned about ripples and calling out the names of his family.
The Wayne family were not his family yet.
Would never be if he didn’t act correctly.
He took a deep breath, trying to force his thoughts in order while pretending to be embarrassed, it wouldn’t be good if Damian’s cold blue eyes settled on him more than he could.
“I saved your life,” the child said suddenly.
“You did,” Tim agreed hesitantly, his mind still running a thousand and one scenarios in which he could escape this paradox unscattered.
“Will you repay my generosity?” Damian asked once, tilting his head once again with childish curiosity.
“If it is within my power to do so, of course,” he agreed, trying to remain as calm as he could. It wouldn’t do him good to antagonize his savior while still in the middle of the desert with a broken leg and no supplies whatsoever.
This was Damian, and while he might hate the brat on a daily basis and try to keep as far away from him as possible. Right now he was the only – slightly – familiar face in a confusing time, a confusing era.
A confusing world he had been trusted in.
“My grandfather sent me on this errand so I could prove I was ready to train,” the child explained. “I was to bring the fruit of my days whether it meant a human corpse, a successful hunt or any other sort of discovery.”
Damian ignored him as he continued.
“As it would prove rather counterproductive to bring your corpse home, considering all the time I have already wasted saving you, I shall deem you my successful hunt, for I not only provided for myself but for you as well,” he said, shrugging his small shoulders. “So you will travel back to the fortress with me and will be considered mine until I see fit to release you back into your village.”
Tim’s whole body tensed, a venomous reply at the tip of his tongue.
Damian literally was calling him a pet.
He could put the kid in his place with a good ol’ fashioned tongue lashing. In the years they had known eachother Tim had become proficient at them and could deliver them like a professional.
He didn’t know this Damian who was sent by his family to wander alone in the desert, who still didn’t know he was nothing but a clone, a test-tube baby that could be easily replaced. The one who still didn’t know the name of his heroic father.
He would play along for now, see whether he had a chance to run away or disappear in the networks, causing the least ripples possible.
But for now…
For now he would play along.
The kid had saved his life anyways.
“I understand,” he said, trying to remain composed.
Damian nodded sagely.
“Do you remember how you ended up in the desert?” the child asked suddenly. “It would not do for us to encounter any sort of trouble because someone is still looking for you.”
Tim tried to do the math, considering Damian’s apparent age which would place him around ten or eleven. He then thought about his lonely house with the enormous bookshelves and empty corridors, of the occasional postcards his parents would send with incorrect dates and contradictory messages.
Of the few times he could coincide with Mrs. Mac on the house and how odd it was to see her.
He shook his head.
“No one will look for me,” he said simply.
Damian’s eyes narrowed.
“Do not think for a moment I am fooled by your evasion,” he said. “You have avoided telling me how you ended in the desert or where you come from.”
Tim’s eyes widened, a lump clogging his throat.
“Also you know my name,” the child continued. “You said my name as you passed out. I have not forgotten about it.”
Tim shook his head, feeling himself about to snap and respond in a way that would most likely get him killed. He wasn’t used to this, he hadn’t had enough time to prepare, he didn’t know, for once in his life, what where the right answers.
He closed his eyes, panic bubbling inside of his chest and tears pooling inside his eyes.
His hands clenched so hard his right thumb produced a soft, almost inaudible snap as the joints settled under the pressure.
Tim’s eyes snapped open.
Swallowing thickly, he folded his knees under himself before he lowered his head, forehead almost touching the ground.
“I am in no in liberty to discuss it, but I can swear on everything I hold dear that I mean no harm to you or your family, Damian,” Tim promised, trying to hide his shaking hands and clumsy lips as he tried to remember his mother’s cool, breezy voice as she taught him how to deal with the elite, the self-perceived superiors that could crush him with the snap of a finger, and yet could keep him alive with the same grace.
There was no panic inside of him, no fear or insecurity.
Only his mother’s soft whispers, her long, frigid fingers pulling his hair back from his forehead while she recited lesson after lesson of diplomacy, of avoidance and manipulation.
All the while she clenched and unclenched her hands, her thumbs snapping gently under the pressure, the joints protesting her relief.
Yes, he had been looking at this issue all wrong from the beginning.
He had been looking at this as a Robin, as a Wayne.
He was a Drake.
He had started his career without training, without muscles, without special technology.
He had started his career with only his wit and his slippery tongue and all the skills he had learnt at his mother’s knee.
He would survive this, he decided.
He would cause no more ripples than necessary.
He would use this second chance Klarion had used as repayment.
Not as a Robin.
Not as the Robin.
He would pull through as Timothy Drake.
And he would do so proudly.
Damian crossed his small arms over his chest, his eyebrow raised in a gesture so uncannily Bruce that Tim’s lips ached to curl up in amusement.
“Can you swear your loyalty to me, then? Swear you will never raise a hand against me in exchange of keeping this mystery of yours?” he demanded, his hand curling around the hilt of his sword.
Tim raised his eyes, a desperate glint in them that made the child pause.
“I swear that all my secrets will be yours when the time is ready, and that until then I shall be loyal to you, Young Master,” he whispered, voice growing in intensity but not in volume. “Because you saved my life expecting nothing in return and as such, I shall dedicate my energy to reward you.”
Damian’s skin flushed under the intensity of Tim’s gaze, his skin prickled with Goosebumps and his pulse sped up.
“Welcome to my service, then,” he said simply, placing a small, magnanimous hand on his new pet/servant/ally’s forehead.
Outside the wind and the sand rose to the sky.
The thunderous clouds of Gotham, their inherent darkness too far away to reach them.
Chapter 3: Mine
“Am I your pet?” Tim asked by the end of their second week together and the day Damian had deemed him fit enough to move on his newly made clutches. Not as much as he would have liked, considering staying in bed for more than two days was equal to having a small panic attack by Drake standards but he could deal while he listened to Damian talk about his life.
Knowledge and power and all that jazz.
“Is that what you would prefer?” the child asked back, eyes set with determination as he fastened his makeshift cast on Tim’s skinny leg.
“You care and provide for me in exchange for company and mostly amusement,” the teen argued, testing his balance – he could do a lot better, if he had to admit it himself. “And your overall attitude towards me is one of patronizing derision.”
Damian sat down on his heels, his chubby cheeks flushing as he looked up at the older boy.
“You have yet to complain,” the child reasoned, his eyes set on Tim’s slightly reddened toes. “Nor have you given me any name to call you other than ‘mine’, or do you wish for me to name you and make you my pet officially?”
Tim couldn’t help himself.
From what he had been able to observe, Damian has just started the education that would later in life turn him into the brat Tim had known. And yes, it was an enlightening experience to the curious theorist he had always been.
Ra’s was raising Damian to be proud and cunning, respectful of tradition, yet independent of The League and merciless in the face of those he considered inferior. Which, in a twisted way, made sense considering the man would later be sending him to live with his father and he wanted to mold the child into a man ‘The Detective’ would respect and eventually love…
Even if it was to take over the child’s body at a later date.
Talia, on the other hand, tolerated her father’s teachings for her son when they aligned with her own plans, because, yeah, she was aware that her son was his father’s splitting image and he would eventually want to meet with her Beloved, but she was also more pragmatic and was preparing her boy to be a just ruler and a feared leader. The kind of mine that would, if push came to shove, assassinate his grandfather and take over the League of Shadows.
Which meant that Damian, for all intents and purposes, was being bred to be a Prince – Prince of Gotham or Prince of the League didn’t really matter to the Al Ghul family – and maybe that had been the reason why they had butted heads the first time they had met…
… Bruce’s love and acceptance not counting.
Tim had been bred by Janet to be the perfect Gotham Prince and that latent training had allowed him to subconsciously see the cracks in Damian’s, and that voice in the back of his head – that sounded like his mother’s at her most disappointed – had been angry that such an uncouth brat dared to question his place.
Talia was breeding Damian to be a Saladin the Great, to be Genghis Khan, to destroy all in his path and rebuild it in his image of magnanimous condescension.
Janet had pulled a page out of Machiavelli and taught Tim to be Lorenzo il Magnifico, to observe and charismatically perform according to the odds, to modify his fame as it changed around him and manipulate perceptions of his self to fit his needs.
In short, Damian was taught to loudly demonstrate his might and never apologize for his wrong doings, while Tim was to be a puppeteer, a ruler in the shadows, never to be held accountable for his sins.
And it had never been more obvious as it was when he witnessed this child try to manipulate him into giving him his name.
He hummed, shaking his head.
It was time to play the old game once more, it seemed.
“… a collar would look most fetchingly then,” Damian said, pulling Tim out of his musings as he managed – without Tim knowing how or why – to force his down on his bed and settled quite comfortably on his lap.
“What?” he asked.
“I believed I had lost you for a moment,” he said imperiously. “Though if your intentions were to prevent me from making you my pet, your skill is seriously lacking,” the boy said, playing with Tim’s hair in a way most likely Talia played with Damian’s own when she was teasing him.
It brought another light into the puzzle that was his once upon a time rival.
Tim allowed himself to smile freely – the kind of smile he used for Bruce and Dick and Kon and Bart, his real, pleasured, small smile.
“Is this a clever rouse for me to tell you my real name?” he asked, feeling a surge of pleasure when Damian smiled shyly back, round face full of hesitant mischief.
Ah, just as he had thought.
“Is your name one of the secrets you cannot reveal until the time is right?” the child asked, wrinkling his nose mockingly.
“Will you name me as your pet then?” he asked back, lowering his face so his hair fell onto his eyes – and now he remembered why his mother had insisted on such a ridiculous haircut – it made him look smaller, his face rounded, so much non-threatening it made his masculine pride cry out in outrage.
Judging by Damian’s attempts to comb his hair back with his small hands, she had been right.
“If I give you a name, your real name with become foreign to be, it will lose all meaning,” he replied, pouting. “The secret will lose its value.”
“You would be correct, Young Master,” Tim said softly, his smile small. “I can assure you, however, that if you are patient enough, you will be the first to hear my name.”
Damian blinked, his face smoothing into the complete expressionlessness that his father used to favor when he was thinking particularly hard – oh, the irony – as he seemed to weigh the pros and cons of the given situation, his browns only betraying his turmoil as they furrowed lightly.
Tim waited patiently, knowing that the future of their interaction depended on the child’s decision.
Finally, Damian huffed.
“You do know my name yet you call me your Young Master,” he mused out loud, stalling.
Their gazes locked.
“Very well, then,” the child finally decided, his chubby hands reaching for Tim’s cheeks and pulling his face forward so their foreheads could meet. “Until you have the confidence in me to reveal your secrets, you shall me simply… mine.”
The older boy nodded, his small smile once again growing on his face.
“So be it, Young Master.”
Chapter 4: Klarion
Tim woke up that very night with the sudden certainty that something was going to change in their small tent, as usual, Damian was sleeping by his side, small hands curled around his arm in an attempt to appear as stoic as usual while searching reassurance out of his presence – and he had to admit he considered it sweet now that he was used to it – and the constant throbbing of his healing leg was almost dulled to a point of ignorance by now.
Which made no sense for his apparent unrest and anxiety.
Slowly, he got out of bed, being careful to remove Damian’s pudgy hands from his shirt and latching them onto his pillow, stilling for only a moment when the boy protested in his sleep and sighing a small sigh of relief when he finally settled back into sleep.
“You will be the death of me…” he whispered. “No matter how old you are.”
Damian’s chubby face scrunched up in annoyance, his little fist hitting the pillow sleepily, as if he assumed it was still Tim’s warm chest.
“Silence, Mine,” he mumbled, snuggling even deeper. “Sleep now.”
Tim did his best not to laugh, yet couldn’t hold himself back from running his hand through the child’s black hair.
What was becoming of him now, he thought, that he was turning into Dick.
“I must admit,” a squeaky voice called from behind him. “That I never thought you would be this skinny.”
Tim shook his head, swallowing the sudden lump of embarrassment in his throat as he turned – with his best scowl thankyouverymuch – to stare at the child floating a few feet before him.
“I thought I wasn’t going to see you again, Klarion,” he mumbled, shaking his head to free his sweat-soaked hair from sticking to his scalp.
The witch boy continued to float above him, eyes full of mirth.
“I guessed I could leave you alone in this new world and be done with you but then I remembered your propensity to overthink and analyse things,” he said, sharp teeth pulled into a smirk. “And since we have much more time now, I wanted to answer any more questions you can have and be on my merry way.”
“So this settles our debt?” Tim asked, frowning. “Will I ever go back home?”
“You will have a happy ending,” Klarion told him, twirling in place. “That is, if you follow this new path set for you. That I can guarantee on my magic.”
“But if I don’t?” the boy argued, struggling to reach his clutches and stand before his ‘savior’.
The witch boy wrinkled his nose, waving his fingers in the air until blue sparkles came out and enveloped Tim’s leg, soothing the continuous throbbing and sending untold relief down his spine.
“What?” he asked, blinking.
“It was infected,” the witch told him, scowling. “Good thing I came then, you can’t even take care of yourself when there is no apparent danger around!”
Tim rolled his eyes, testing his weight on his leg hesitantly and enjoying the soothing roll of his joints as he moved his foot.
“Thanks,” he whispered, eyes fixed on his wiggling toes.
“Don’t thank me, you fiend!” Klarion huffed. “I took a great risk by bringing you here, you know? If you die, my magic’s gone! Plus that debt, that terrible debt! I was the laughing stock of our community.”
“I’m sure you were,” the other boy sighed, feeling the start of a headache as he stood up straight, hearing the satisfactory pops and cracks of his spine as he was finally able to relieve the tension as he was used to. “Huh, I’m still quite flexible.”
“Stop that before you trigger my puberty, will you?” Klarion snapped, scowling. “Now sit down and let’s chat, I don’t have much time.”
Tim obeyed, more because he was still testing his own physical performances and abilities more than to actually obey the Witch Boy, but the moment he let his body sink in Damian’s ridiculously overstuffed high backed chair, he realized the other boy meant business and was all out for it.
“So, exactly what did you do?” he asked, blue eyes focused.
Klarion huffed, sitting on thin air as he crossed his legs and arms, his scowl not receding.
“I took you from your timeline, of course, I’m sure you can tell by now,” Klarion said, shaking his head. “You were going to die and that, in itself, was something that couldn’t happen. You are the Robin that Succeeded, after all.”
“Robin that Succeeded, yeah,” Tim frowned. “You called me that before.”
The other boy rolled his eyes.
“Trust you to be completely unaware of your own role in the universe, huh?” Klarion snapped. “You arethe Robin, Drake. The one Robin that succeeded when all others, past and future, failed. You are the one that fulfilled the role of the Robin even if you were not the first one. You stabilized an universe that would otherwise collapse in itself.”
Tim snorted, his cheeks coloring.
“You are giving me too much credit,” he said, shaking his own head. “I have never been the Robin,that’s Dick.”
“He was the Robin, yes, yet you are the one who defined the role forever,” Klarion sighed. “Anyways, you cannot die yet, therefore I took your soul from the broken shell of your body and placed it in a time and place that would allow you to heal, preserve you, in a way, and then had to move your younger, frailer body, out of the reach of your own timeline, not such an easy fit, you must be aware.”
“Basically, you took me out of every single reach I might have on the timeline until I was ready to go back to work?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “What happened to my other body, the big me?”
“Not that big if you ask me,” Klarion snorted. “It’s alive, in a coma, but alive.”
Tim scowled, feeling particularly offended that an eternal child such a Klarion would comment on his lack of size.
“Will I ever go back to that body?” he asked, once more steeling himself for the child’s antics.
“Dunno,” Klarion shrugged. “That’s something you can decide, I mean, right now you are in a completely detached position in time. Everything that happens will be determined by your choices.”
“Yet you warned me about ripples in time,” the smaller boy said, index finger tapping at his bottom lip.
“Don’t take it so lightly, Robin who succeeded,” the witch warned, rolling his eyes. “If you cause enough ripples your own existence would be erased, and all that you hold would collapse.”
Tim closed his eyes, his senses acutely focusing on Damian’s even breathing just a few meters away from them, how he seemed to protest his loneliness in his sleep.
“He would have a father who loved him openly,” he whispered lightly, not daring to look at the child.
“He would be killed upon entering his father’s realm, most likely by his own father, his corpse hanging next to Grayson’s,” he said, finding it all amusing. “The Man of Bat was hanging over the edge of his sanity when he found you. And you pushed him back into the light. Do not forget that, Robin who succeeded.”
“And don’t forget your precious outsiders, the children without a thread,” Klarion continued, once more in a good mood. “Without you, the clone would have been put down like a dog and the speedster would have disintegrated into ashes.”
Tim hung his head.
“So, no ripples,” he whispered.
“Considering my continued survival also depends on you, yes,” the witch agreed. “No ripples.”
“What about Damian, then,” Tim asked, once more opening his eyes and finally turning to the sleeping child. “Won’t my presence here cause ripples in his own timeline?”
“Whatever your presence here changed will be added to your memory of your previous meeting, I would guess,” Klarion mussed. “Considering it all fits into the grand scheme of time. From the way he is angry towards a world that has betrayed him, to the homicidal tendencies he showed when you tried to shake his hand.”
Tim nodded, feeling disheartened.
“Won’t my being here affect my timeline anyways?” he said suddenly, blinking. “If this body is the one I had at my current age I disappeared from home, Mrs. Mac might look for me.”
“Would she?” Klarion sneered. “You know the answer to this already.”
Tim shook his head, sighing.
“And if I stay here then, I won’t be able to go back and help Bruce or the others…” the boy said softly. “It will all come to pass anyways.”
“You will have to go back to your home before then,” the witch boy replied, rolling his eyes. “I am trying to save your life, remember?”
“Right,” Tim said, sighing. “So, no ripples, yet I do have to try and go home, but I can’t try to save everyone or they will die, but I can’t stop, say, Jason’s death…”
“Because then your own usefulness would be compromised and no one would be there to create your group and your friends would die horrible, lonely deaths,” Klarion said, smiling. “And saving them would only leave a wide berth for the Man of the Bat to be hunted down while trying to reach back in time.”
“This is giving me a headache,” Tim complained, moaning.
Klarion quieted then, his eyes narrowing.
“I have to go now, Robin who succeeded, the future awaits you,” he said, looking away. “You are far too unfairly beautiful for such a broken thing.”
“Huh?” he asked, blinking.
But the witch boy was gone.
“Great,” he mumbled, scratching the back of his head. “That was as enlightening as it was disturbing.”
Tim got up, once more enjoying the feeling of his now completely healed leg and stretching, when he heard the unmistakable sound of steel against the desert wind – and how was this his life when he could differentiate the sound alone? – and within seconds Damian was out of bed, sword at the ready and teeth bared into a snarl.
“Mine, are you okay?” he asked sleepily, his one free hand rubbing over his eye as he walked towards him.
Tim gulped, seriously unable to form a coherent emotional reaction that would not resemble something Dick would do at the moment.
“I… think I heard something, so I came to investigate,” he muttered, eyes wide.
“Do not fear, mine,” the child growled, grasping his hand. “Show yourself, whoever you are!!”
The shadows around the tent seemed to shift and coil in eachother before their eyes, the whisper of steel and desert becoming even more distinct as a group of darkly dressed ninja materialized in front of them.
Tim stared, now remembering why he had used his glasses most of his young life.
Damian stood up straighter, visibly unimpressed.
“You,” he hissed, his hand tightening around Tim’s.
“My Lord,” one of the ninja said thickly. “Your mother has requested you return immediately.”
“Mother,” Damian growled. “I believed she would collect me herself.”
The ninja tried not to show their impatience, or at least Tim wanted to believe that was the reason for their shifting.
“She believes you are not in need for her company considering your new… companion,” another ninja said hesitantly, a female this time. “We were ordered to bring you home and to present your pet to her at once.”
“And if I refuse?” Damian challenged. “He is, after all, mine.”
The ninja shifted again, their fingers making soft whispers as they tightened on the leather of their weapons. Damian’s fingers were crushing Tim’s and his pose was one of battle.
“Young Master,” he whispered, attracting Damian’s eyes towards him. “If your mother wants to make sure I do not represent a threat to you, you should honor her concern.”
“Her concern…” Damian scoffed, eyeing him.
Tim decided to opt on the side of diplomacy, imagining his mother’s small, thin smile of pride as he thought about his choice of words.
“Please, Master,” Tim insisted. “If only for my sake. I would not forgive myself if my presence caused a rift between your mother and yourself.”
Damian continued to stare at him, his pale face and tired eyes, his tense shoulders and skinny fingers.
“Very well,” he sighed, finally. “If only for your peace of mind, Mine.”
Tim sighed back in relief, his own smile curling his lips.
“Thank you, Young Master.”
The ninja stared at eachother, unsure how to proceed.
Damian wrapped his arms around Tim’s waist, his face one of pure malice.
“Take us to mother, then,” he ordered. “My own and I are dying to meet her.”
Chapter 5: Talia
They rode for a few hours towards one of the League’s compounds that Tim knew from previous – or future, considering the timeline – research on the League, would one day become one of the most expensive yet abandoned hideouts Ra’s had to offer. So, obviously, this was where Talia had tried to raise her little prince.
He was quickly ushered into an enormous, ornate room draped in red silks and marble and sunlight by one of the female ninjas that had fetched him and Damian earlier, the smell of lavender and cream cloying and thick.
Definitely the type Damian would grow used to and regard fondly.
He would need to make a mental note to himself to introduce Damian to open air and soft perfume before his stay was over, if only to save Alfred the time to wash the sheets and curtains over and over when the child got homesick but became too proud to ask for a sliver of home in later years.
Tim kept his head down despite his nagging curiosity, knowing Talia’s heels were clicking around the room, approaching him. Assessing him with her calculating eyes.
“You call my son your Master,” she said softly, setting herself on a luxurious window seat, her hand reaching for a flute of sparkling champagne as her eyes continued to regard him with open curiosity.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied simply, forcing his voice to break boyishly.
Talia chuckled, her red nails caressing the rim of her glass.
“My son is only four years old,” she continued, her amusement growing with the apparent nervousness her words stabbed into his skinny frame.
“I know, ma’am,” he replied, his hands fisting the legs of his pajama pants.
“Yet, you believe he is a man worth following?” she asked once more, her lips curling even further when Tim nodded weakly. “What do you see when you look at my son, stranger?”
Tim pretended to think about it for a while, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip, his brow furrowing in thought.
“I…” he hesitated. “I see a prince, madam. A prince learning to rule, but struggling with no subjects to follow him. A lord that has yet to learn how to direct his people because those in his life are still far superior to him.”
Talia raised an eyebrow, her eyes narrowing.
She inspected her darling son’s pet.
“And you would be willing to play subject to my son’s prince?” he asked, her voice viper cold.
Tim nodded, forcing his cheeks to flush and his eyes to sink into his feet. A part of him was used to this charade, the displays of the Al Ghul family – Damian’s and Ra’s usually - and it helped him react in a way that he knew Talia would appreciate, though it was hard not to roll his eyes or snort at the way the whole family seemed so keen on their looming.
Idly, he wondered if Bruce had learned such a tactic from Ra’s at some point in time, and then, had taught it to Dick and the others.
Tim himself had years to become used to their looming, him being too short to properly loom himself.
Plus his own mother was more of a ‘I’m so disappointed’ woman herself, and her softest sigh was, in Tim’s humble opinion, far worse than any superior smirk Talia would be able to pull on him.
He was kind of sad for her and her family, really.
Had they actually met his real ten year old self, he would have snorted, unimpressed by their antics and not trained enough to refrain his non-amusement.
He would give Bruce another big hug and maybe kiss Alfred on the cheek when he returned for their extensive lessons.
… if he ever saw them, his them, again.
Oh, what a depressing thought.
With a start, he realized Talia’s lips had curled down in distaste, her eyes narrowing impatiently before him.
He lowered his face further, allowing his hair to mask his eyes.
“Damian saved my life, ma’am, never expecting anything in return,” he said shyly. “For that alone he deserves my devotion and care.”
“Until you are fit to be returned home?” Talia sneered.
“He did mention he planned to return me home eventually,” he m used, head tilting to the side.
“But you don’t know how to return yourself,” she added, raising an eyebrow of her own. “Otherwise you would have made him feel it was his duty to take you home by now.”
Tim’s chin trembled, quite admirably, if he had to say so himself.
“I do find myself lost in this land, yes,” he admitted.
The woman eyed him silently, her eyes inspecting every inch of his scrawny body and sun burnt skin, the way the bridge of his nose was peeling and leaving a faint, almost invisible dusting of freckles on his cheeks.
He did not look like a threat at all.
Just as his mother had taught him.
Finally, after deeming him harmless enough, she stood from her seat, heels clicking and echoing into the enormity of her room as she walked to the balcony.
“One of my aides will be waiting outside for you. You will bath and change out of those ridiculous clothes. As my son’s subject you will take care of your appearance at all times in a way that will not reflect negatively on your Master,” she said, shaking her head.
Tim scowled at his ratty, sweat-stained and sand crusted Green Lantern pajamas – the ones his younger self had been wearing when Klarion’s magic had misplaced him – and sighed in shame at the thought that they would disappear from his life the moment they left his skin.
His dad had bought them for him the last time they had visited – by this timeline’s standards at the very least – as his mother had mentioned, jokingly, that the Green Lantern Corps would be the only acceptable plebeian job she would accept from him.
His nose itched.
It had been brought up because the news announced Dick Grayson’s – Bruce Wayne’s former ward extraordinaire – intentions to join the police force and Tim’s subsequent enthusiasm with public service.
At the very least, Talia would not be able to see and sneer at his Teddy-bear themed underwear.
“Also,” Talia continued, making Tim raise his eyes. “You will actively use our resources, all of our libraries and maps to look for a way to return to your homeland. I do not believe you are a good influence on my son and I want you gone as soon as possible.”
Tim nodded, wide eyed.
That was blunt.
“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered.
Talia finally smiled once more.
“Good boy,” she said.
Tim closed his eyes tightly, his bare feet making no sound as he left the room to get changed.
Ra’s and Damian were probably waiting for him so the child could introduce him to his grandfather.
His hand tightened on the green symbol on his chest where his mother had carefully stitched ‘D.I. Drake’ in almost invisible green thread while his father had tried to get him a police hat in green instead of the usual blue, convinced that the forces in one or another country of south America had one just the right shade for his use, his own part of the joke.
Damn it, he’s better stop thinking about that.
He was a hardened eighteen year old trapped inside the body of his lonely ten year old self.
He so wanted his mother to hug him now.
Chapter 6: Ra's.
A brief struggle to get his clothes off, a long soak on the gigantic pool that apparently the al Ghul called a bathtub, filled to the brim with warm, rose-scented water, and a thorough scrubbing were in order before he was presented with a pristine white shirt and black slacks, his feet too small to fit any of the shoes the family – and by them, he meant Talia – had decided to provide for him.
Just as he had predicted, his pajamas were gone by the time he was ready, not even a single thread of his shirt remained for him to hang onto.
He sat there, in the middle of the bathroom for a full minute and mourned its loss, wondering silently whether he would be able to find any other of his Green Lantern memorabilia when he returned home.
It would most likely be full of his parents scribbles and inside jokes.
Yeah, he would look for them all when he returned home.
He shook his head.
If he returned home at all.
As soon as he left the bathroom he was greeted by his escort for the rest of the day, who, surprisingly enough, was no longer the random female ninja that had been leading him earlier.
“You did take longer than expected,” the White Ghost said simply as he looked back at him. “The Demon’s Head decided it would be wise to appoint a stronger guard for you.”
Tim stared into Dusan’s black eyes, his own blue ones full of questions.
He decided to play dumb then, and reply to the older man with as much honesty as he could allow himself.
“I was wondering where my pajamas were,” he said softly.
Dusan blinked back at him, his face impassive.
“They were incinerated,” he replied simply, shrugging his shoulders. “Lady Talia did not consider them fit any longer.”
Tim lowered his eyes to his bare feet, his throat tight as he swallowed.
“Follow me,” the White Ghost said then, starting to walk towards a corridor, his face impassive.
Tim followed in silence for a second, his eyes stinging.
His mother’s voice, cold and calculating, whispered inside his head that he was being overly dramatic, that he needed to control his emotions if he wanted to emerge victorious from this game he had been thrust upon.
Because he had to win at all cost.
He had to survive and thrive and live the life she had given him.
He could do no less.
And yet, the rest of him wanted to argue with her, wanted to tell her how much he had loved his make-shift Lantern uniform, how he had slept always clutching her stitching in his fingers, how he could sometimes pretend her hands were still there, in his clothes, over his heart, and that it comforted him in the night.
That her faith that he would rise over the Corp’s ranks – that he would be chosen over any other being in the universe – filled him with warmth when she wasn’t there.
“I told my mother I wanted to be a police officer,” he whispered finally, needing to hear his own story out loud if only to center himself. “Mother said he would not accept my plebeian choices, and that if I insisted on such career path, I should at least aim for higher grounds and join the Green Lantern Corps. She stitched my name on those pajamas and my father got me a cop hat but in green and they would joke that one day I would be the leader and they would know it was me on the stars, watching over them.”
The White Ghost remained silent, his eyes blank as he led Tim through the sunlit corridors and doors.
“Now I’ll never hear her laughter as she says I’ll be a D.I. or dad’s when he argues I should be captain,” he continued, his voice growing muted, soft. “I miss them.”
“You are now a part of this household,” Dusan said simply, his hands cold as he grasped his shoulder and pushed him inside a particularly darkened room. “You should feel grateful for our hospitality.”
Tim tripped, nearly falling over his face as he was sent to his knees, his only warning was Dusan’s voice as he whispered: “The child, Demon’s Head.”
“Thank you, Dusan,” Ra’s whispery voice responded, his amusement clear.
“Do be careful with My Own, White Ghost,” Damian demanded, quite upset. “He is hurt and must not be injured further.”
Tim, for once, did not have to feign his embarrassment and nervousness as the child approached him and forced his face upwards to examine him. His nerves were raw and he felt exposed in such an enormous study room.
From what he could assume, despite him being eighteen and a part of the elite of the heroes, he was now ten, and his child-mind would, despite all odds, influence some of his emotional responses if he was faced with much stress.
Or so he would like to believe himself, if only not to admit his own childish image reminded him of the family he had lost such a long time ago, of the things he had left behind when trying to become the perfect Wayne child.
His mother would be appalled nonetheless.
“You were hurt, Mine?” Damian asked, staring at his bright eyes and bitten lips.
Tim took a deep breath, shaking his head gently.
“No, Young Master,” he whispered. “I do appreciate your concern.”
The child stared into his eyes for a moment longer, his disbelief clear in his chubby face.
“We will have words later,” he informed him, his tone final.
Tim nodded, feeling the haughty expression on Damian’s face center him back towards his objectives.
“This is My Own, Grandfather,” Damian introduced, his hand firm on Tim’s shoulder.
Tim debated whether it would be more proper of his upbringing to keep his eyes on his knees or to give into his supposedly childish impulses and stare curiously at Ra’s Al Ghul.
It had been easier to deal with Talia, because he knew he could outsmart her with the right set of clues, he had seen her around Bruce, and also knew she was capable of compassion if Jason could be believed, but Ra’s was another thing altogether.
A dangerous snake on the grass waiting for the slightest provocation to attack sometimes.
A doting gentleman eager for an intellectually fulfilling banter some others.
He finally decided that child would be easier to pull off right now and raised his eyes to stare, his lips pursed in fear and his shoulders tense with trepidation.
Ra’s stared back from his chair, his own eyes examining every inch of him cunningly.
“Grandson,” he said finally. “Had you eagerly wanted a pet, I would have provided you with one more appropriate than a child.”
Tim mentally congratulated himself.
“He is not a pet, Grandfather,” he argued. “As I already established, he is mine to keep, the utter proof of my success during the last month.”
“I see your little friend is well fed and particularly healthy, and there is also evidence of his recent struggles, but once such proof was presented, I see no reason to allow this child to remain, Grandson,” Ra’s reasoned, his head resting on his lazily clenched fist with amusement. “He must, after all, have a family waiting for him.”
Damian snarled indignantly, his hand tightening lightly on Tim’s shoulder.
“I would never deprive a family of their child, Grandfather!” he snapped. “I made sure My Own was alone before I brought him here. No one looked for him during our stay in the desert, no broadcasts were made looking for a child, no messages scattered to the wind. You can confirm it yourself, but there is no one waiting for him. He is mine now.”
Tim sighed, his eyes falling to his knees as the two continued to trade arguments back and forth. He did have to admit Damian was particularly eloquent when confronting his Grandfather, though most of his arguments would, easily enough, be deconstructed to one major point.
‘This boy is mine.’
And Ra’s, cunning snake he usually was, would simply continue to question his Grandson on Tim’s own devotion, his strength, his usefulness over such a ridiculous whim.
He was literally the puppy a child would argue followed him home.
Tim did his best not to roll his eyes, feeling grateful that Ra’s study – for this was, obviously, Ra’s study – was visually far more interesting than Talia’s sun room had been. The tapestries on the walls told battles long past and the bookshelves that lined the walls were filled to the brim with titles that would make any scholar Tim knew salivate at the very thought.
Maybe, if he was allowed to remain by Damian’s side, he would be able to slip into the room and read?
Damian’s and Ra’s’ arguments floating over his head as background noise.
That piece of parchment peeking from one of the shelves.
Oh yes, it was.
The actual complete manuscript of Ovid’s poem ‘Medea’.
Of course, if there was one person in the world to have the only remaining copy, it would have to be Ra’s Al Ghul.
Idly, he wondered if anyone, other than the Demon’s Head himself had actually read the whole thing.
He tried to read as much as the peeking piece of parchment allowed him while completely ignoring the way the room seemed to grow progressively more quiet around him.
He was, however, jolted back to reality when Damian’s small hand – too small to be this strong – tightened near excruciatingly painful on his shoulder, his short, blunt nails digging into the soft cotton of his shirt and into his still sun-sensitive skin, making him yelp.
“Y-young Master?” he asked, eyes wide, skin pale.
“My Own, are you okay?” the child asked back, eyes concerned, head tilted. “Grandfather was asking you a question and you wouldn’t respond. I feared you were too intimidated.”
Tim’s color slipped further from his face as he realized the Demon’s Head’s eyes were completely trained on him once more, completely intelligent.
Completely focused on his own.
“I… I am so sorry, Young Master,” he whispered, voice hoarse. “I assumed you and your Grandfather would decide on your own and…”
“I had no idea you would…”
Damian nodded then, sagely.
“Of course, My Own,” he replied, his hands petting his hair. “I completely understand your misgivings.”
Tim swallowed once more, his eyes straying to Ra’s, still perched on his seat, his mouth curling with far more amusement than before.
“I think, Grandson,” he said after a pause. “That your pet and I would need to talk a little bit further.”
“Grandfather?” Damian asked, eyes wide.
“It is not every day, than my grandchild manages to rescue a complete stranger with no family and also able to read ancient Coptic, is it not?” Ra’s asked, raising an eyebrow.
Damian tilted his head, uncomprehending.
“I don’t think I understand, Grandfather,” he said, frowning.
“Tell me, child,” Ra’s said simply, standing from his chair. “Were you enjoying your reading?”
Tim swallowed once more, internally weighting the possibilities each and everyone of his answers could turn the conversation over, all different endings this moment could bring to his life.
“I am so sorry, sir,” he whispered. “I couldn’t help myself.”
“I did not ask for your apologies, child,” Ra’s said, raising an eyebrow.
“Were you reading, My Own?” Damian asked, kneeling by his side to grab at his hand, his touch soft, hesitant.
Tim stared at him, biting his lips in contemplation.
He was here because he had pledged his loyalty to Damian, not the rest of the Al Ghul family. Talia had accepted him into their home because his life had been given to Damian and Ra’s, despite everything else he might be capable of, was a man of honor.
He would plunge ahead then, and hope for the best.
“My father was an archeologist, Young Master, he taught me much,” he whispered, his face full of shame. “I am so sorry, my Young Master, I never meant to intrude but… Medea…”
Damian’s hand rose to his cheek.
“You are, indeed, full of surprises, My Own,” the child said, a small smile of pride lighting his face. Ra’s hummed his agreement, doing what his family did best and simply walking around them.
Tim felt something unravel inside his chest.
“How many languages do you speak, child?” Ra’s asked, eyes set on his books.
Tim considered his answer for a moment, his hand tight on Damian’s.
“Fluidly thirteen, sir, ten of which are current languages and three dead ones,” he counted, his cheeks flushing an embarrassed pink. “My father wanted me to have the most knowledge available within my reach.”
“And where is this prodigious father of yours now, boy?” the immortal asked once more, crossing his arms.
Tim lowered his eyes to his knees.
“He was murdered a long time ago, both of my beloved parents were,” he replied.
“No one takes care of you, then?” Ra’s asked, surprised. “Such a talented linguist and no one is taking advantage of your knowledge?”
Tim shook his head, knowing where Ra’s interrogation was going, for once.
He would be able to spot a lie the moment it left his lips, Tim realized. And he would immediately lose Damian’s trust and most likely the skin of his back.
With a small prayer to his mother for her stoic strength, Tim tried his luck.
“No sir, I lived alone before Young Master found me, had been living alone for a few years now,” he said, eyes matching Ra’s. “A good man was taking care of me after my parents passed away, but I was an intruder in his home and he had a family to care for, so I left.”
Damian’s fingers tightened in his own, his other hand grasping the sleeve of his shirt.
“It is fortunate then that I found you, My Own,” he whispered, wide, childish eyes full of pride.
“Fortunate indeed,” Ra’s agreed, his smirk masking his usual intentions. “What a horrible person, your previous caretaker must have been, allowing such a young child as yourself to leave.”
“Oh,” Tim hurried to say. “Not at all! I was a sickly child, prone to illness. I was mostly a burden to such a good man. I left on my own to help him.”
Ra’s took an immediate step back, his nose wrinkling in distaste.
“You are not…” he hesitated.
“No sir! Not contagious at all!” Tim replied instantly, his face a complete mask of fright. “I wouldn’t have allowed Young Master to remain close to me if I was! I just… tire easily and cannot maintain my weight, no matter how much I try.”
It was true… sort of.
Ra’s nodded, still hesitant and dismissive.
“Very well then,” he said, his voice gaining once more, his powerful tone.
Damian’s back, Tim noted, immediately straightened at the sound.
“It appears, Grandson, that your mother was mistaken,” the Demon’s Head said, walking towards his window to enjoy the sunlight on his skin – a family thing, Tim mussed, as Talia had done the same thing when she had reached her decision – and closing his eyes. “You have, once again, proven yourself your father’s son as you have not only saved another life, but gained in the process a most suitable ally for yourself.”
“I am gratified you think so, Grandfather,” Damian said evenly, his brow furrowed.
“Child, you will remain at my grandson’s side as a playmate and a tutor, your knowledge of the ancient languages will be most fortunate for his learning,” Ra’s commanded then. “You will read to him and then teach him to read on his own, and then we will see what other surprises you can come up with.”
Damian’s smile widened as he heard those words.
Tim just allowed himself a long sigh of relief.
“I shall not disappoint you, Young Master,” he said simply, bowing to Damian.
“I know you won’t, My Own,” the child replied, nuzzling his cheek with his own.
“You two are dismissed then,” Ra’s said, shaking his head. “I am sure you two will be hungry by now.”
“Thank you, Grandfather, we shall retire then.”
Damian stood from his kneeling position, his eyes wide and his smile blinding, his hand never releasing Tim’s as he helped the older boy to his feet as well, gently tugging him towards the entrance where the White Ghost waited for them, eyes impassive.
“My Own will remain my playmate and tutor,” Damian announced imperiously to his uncle. “I hope you will treat him with the respect he is owed.”
Dusan nodded, rolling his eyes at the child and then turning his dark gaze on Tim himself.
“Welcome then, child,” he said, his voice soft. “Here.”
One of his long, pale hands reached for Tim’s own, surprising both children with its gentle movement, before he held the older boy’s hand palm-up and deposited two small pebbles on it.
Damian blinked, surprised, before his eyes widened and his mouth curled into a snarl.
“What have you done!” he demanded, reaching for his sword. “What have you done to My Own!”
Dusan stared at him, surprised, before he noticed the single tear sliding down Tim’s pale cheek, his trembling lips and watery eyes.
Ra’s himself was brought out by his grandson’s screams, shocked at the scene that greeted his eyes.
“What is happening here?” he asked, calm as always.
“He gave My Own something!” Damian snapped. “He made My Own cry!”
Ra’s raised an eyebrow.
“Child?” he asked.
But Tim was unable to form words, his throat clogged with such emotion that it was a miracle he was able to breath at all.
Two small, green pebbles rested on the palm of his hand.
Two, slightly scorched, yet mostly intact plastic little buttons were before his eyes.
The two front buttons of his Green Lantern pajamas were in his hand.
He closed his eyes, feeling the strength of his father enter him whole, the cool calculating nature of his mother force its way into his mind.
He was going to survive.
There was no doubt about it.
“Thank you,” he whispered at the older man, his eyes conveying his inner strength. “Thank you so much.”
Damian stared, confused and still quite angry, his arms wrapping around his companion to protect him from the unknown.
“You are not hurt, My Own?” he asked urgently. “Did my uncle hurt you in any way? I will slay him where he stands if he did!”
Tim turned to Damian, the back of his fingers caressing the child’s cheek.
“Not at all, Young Master,” he said softly, gently. “Your Uncle just gave me a most wonderful present.”
Damian turned to glare at Dusan, his own childish mind unable to comprehend why his uncle’s presence was not unwelcomed by him. But he had still made his Own cry, he had made him laugh too and it was unacceptable to him.
“I do thank you attention, Uncle,” he said, bitingly. “But try to keep your distance from My Own and I.”
Without another word, Damian continued to drag Tim away, his hand firmly wrapped around his playmate’s waist.
“Oh,” Ra’s called from the door, clearly amused. “One more thing, child.”
Tim turned, staring at him in askance, and then flushed, his lips trembling as he delivered his reply.
Damian bristled, his glare heated.
Chapter 7: Jackson
Damian had not talked to him since the moment they left Ra’s study, but at the time, Tim had been too engrossed in his new treasure to actually notice. A part of him was used to Damain’s silence, to being ignored by his somehow younger brother.
He stared, trying to make sense of his self as the child continued to glare at his sandbag of an opponent, eyes narrowed against the desert wind in ways that made them tear. Tim wanted to stop him, stop his bruised hands from grasping his sword once more, to stop his clenched teeth from sinking onto his lower lip. How long had they been in that room, with Damian viciously attacking his imaginary opponent and him kneeling by his side, transfixed by his keepsake?
No, it wasn’t right.
This wasn’t his Damian, it wasn’t his demon brat.
This Damian was a child.
And he wasn’t Robin.
He took a deep breath, opting for the etiquette his mother had ingrained in him so long ago.
“You are upset, Young Master,” he whispered, eyes set on his folded knees.
The child continued his vicious attack on his imaginary opponent, a single muddy tear rolling down his cheek.
“I am not upset,” he responded. “More disappointed, now that I know how much your word is worth. Contemplative now that I know exactly the kind of creature I have saved.”
Tim frowned, raising his eyes to glare at the boy.
“I beg your pardon?” he said, hands clenching in an effort not to show how offended he was.
Damian smirked at him, his chubby cheeks making a mockery of his usual sneer.
“You made a promise to me,” he reminded the teen. “And it only took my grandfather’s gaze upon yours for you to break it.”
Tim thought back, trying to imagine what kind of promise had he broken to Damian while being briefly interrogated by Ra’s. He didn’t remember much of importance. Ra’s had been unimpressed by his skinny, underdeveloped body and weak knees, he had asked about his origins, his parents, and, finally, as they left, his nam—-
“I did promise you would be the first one to hear the sound of my name from my lips, if you respected my secrets,” he whispered finally, feeling a knot tighten inside his chest when Damian let his sword fall from his hand and turn to him with a glare.
“Yet, the moment grandfather asked, you immediately forgot about your precious secrets,” the child spat. “Didn’t you, Jack?”
Tim tilted his head.
“I did not, for Jack is not the name I am to be called,” he tried to explain, trying to adjust the simple concepts of civilian life to Damian’s League of Asassin’s upbringings. “Jack is my middle name.”
“You said your name is Jack,” the boy scowled, confused. “Are you trying to confuse me?”
“Jack was my father’s name before it was my own. He gave me his name and placed it in the middle of mine to protect me and mark me as his own,” he said, shrugging. “In my homeland, no one calls eachother by their middle name, just as I cannot call you Al, can I?”
Damian’s eyes widened, his small body instantly gravitating towards the shade where Tim rested.
“You lied to the Demon’s Head,” he said, shocked.
“I did not,” Tim replied, smiling mischievously. “Jack, or rather Jackson, is my name, just not the name I use to identify myself.”
Damian nodded, resting his head on Tim’s lap.
“Jackson, the son of Jack,” he said rolling the name, tasting it. “It means no one in this fortress knows your real name.”
“Not until I am free to reveal it to you, Young Master,” the teen said simply, carding his fingers through Damian’s dark, sweat-soaked hair. “I did promise you would be the first to hear it.”
Damian closed his eyes in bliss, small body snuggling closer for comfort.
“I shall allow it then,” he said ceremoniously. “And I shall call you Jackson in the meantime, to honor your secrets.”
Tim bowed lightly.
“Thank you, Young Master,” he whispered, his hands carefully grasping Damian’s and inspecting the damaged palms. “Will you allow me to treat your hands now?”
Damian scowled, his cheeks coloring in an effort to hide his wince of pain.
“I must harden my skin if I am to become an apt swordsman,” he reasoned, eyes set on Tim’s.
The older boy shook his head.
“One must always consider the limits of one’s body before stretching them beyond the human capability,” he advised, his fingers careful. “Should you injure your hands beyond repair, I would have failed my duty as your tutor and protector.”
Damian considered his words for a moment, his scowl deepening.
“But your hands are calloused,” he reasoned. “Were you a warrior once too?”
“I was merely a curious boy trying to find answers where there were none,” he replied.
“Uncle Dusan, I am thirsty,” he ordered, his scowl softening. “And I am sure Jack is as well.”
The White Ghost, who had been watching them from the patio simply scowled his unamusemet, pale hands clenching over his crossed arms.
“Young Master!” Tim said, scandalized. “You must not speak as such to your Uncle!”
“He is our watcher,” Damian argued, wrapping his arms around Tim’s neck and snuggling into his chest. “It is his duty to provide for our safety.”
Tim sighed, shaking his head.
“Young Master, as your servant it is my duty to provide for you both, not the other way around,” he scolded softly, his eyes reflecting the soft disappointment he could remember his father used on him, the same stinging punishment his mother used with cold indifference.
Twice as effective.
“Jack,” Damian said, surprised.
“Would Master Dusan care for some tea as well?” he asked, staring at the pale man watching them.
Dusan raised a pale, silver eyebrow, before staring at the absolute displeasure in his nephew’s face and nodding.
“I would like that very much,” he whispered, his lips pulling lightly into a small smile. “Thank you, Jack.”
Damian stared in horror as his own, his Jack, stood from his kneeling position and slowly made his way into the building.
“Do not use my own’s name so freely, Uncle,” he warned, lips pulled back in a snarl. “He is mine.”
“I was simply replying to his question, nephew,” Dusan replied, shrugging his shoulders. “He is a rather polite young man.”
Tim returned if only a few minutes later, holding a small silver tray with a steaming teapot and three small cups, his smile a shy little thing as he served Damian first and then Dusan.
“I do not like the familiar way you and my uncle speak, My Jack,” the child protested, as he received his cup and took a tentative sip. “You must ask my permission before you engage in such practices once again.”
Tim lowers his eyes, face set in a small frown.
“I apologize if I overstepped my boundaries, Young Master,” he said softly, his hand reaching gently for the boy’s hair. “I just believed that one of the most important markings of a leader is his respect and understanding of their elders.”
Damian wrinkled his nose, reaching for the honey for his tea.
“I can only respect those superior to me,” he said haughtily. “You must trust me to protect you from all others.”
Tim laughed a little, his hair moving against the afternoon breeze that, despite their secluded spot in the patio, still seemed to reach them.
“But all your elders have the advantage of their years on this earth, Young Master,” he said patiently. “While maybe not superior to you in strength or birthright, their experience alone would make them valuable assets to you.”
Damian stared, his eyes wide, before turning to regard his uncle with a new sort of wonder.
“You are, indeed, older than I, Uncle Dusan,” he said, doing his best to mince his words.
Dusan raised an unamused eyebrow.
“To show respect to those older, and therefore more experienced than you, Young Master, you show your respect to their years and all that they can teach you,” Tim continued, his fingers playing with Damian’s hair. “It is a mark of maturity, to recognize such asset in others.”
Damian considered his own’s words for a long time, his eyes set on his teacup.
“Uncle Dusan,” he said finally. “I do apologize for my behavior and I do hope it will not color all future interactions we share? I would love to learn from your experience and for you to learn from mine?”
Dusan blinked, unused to such politeness in a day – not from his sister, especially not from her bratty son – before he turned to the other boy smiling his satisfaction at them both.
Perhaps this lost boy of his nephew’s would serve a rather beneficial purpose in their household after all.
“I accept your apology, nephew,” he whispered, dark eyes lowering to his own tea uncomfortably. “And I welcome your questions should you have them.”
Damian turned to Tim immediately, his eyes wide, his cheeks flushed.
Tim beamed proudly back at him, imagining his mother’s approving nod on the back of his head.
Drake upbringing 1.
Al Ghul indoctrination 0.
Chapter 8: Woof
When Dusan arrived that morning bringing breakfast for the brat and his little pet – because his sister was a bitch and decided she was going to treat him like her son’s particular servant, especially now that father was away on business – he was expecting his nephew to be still in bed, curled into a little ball of limbs and blankets and the new addition to the household, Jack, to be already washed and dressed, his cot – bed made, his small hands picking up scrolls, ink, pens, and chalk for today’s lesson.
What he found, however, varied much from reality as his little nephew was awake and up, for once, his little hands frantically clawing at the enormous bookshelf his mother had insisted was only appropriate for her darling son’s room.
Jack, on the other hand, was up high on the bookshelf, little feet precariously dangling on the wooden panels as he inspected tome after tome and scowling as if their content personally offended him. One hand tightly holding onto the top of the shelf – which reached the ceiling – and the other gently running over the back of every book. Lips pursed as he read the titles outloud.
“My Own!” Damian protested, his high-pitched voice nearing hysteria as he continued to try to reach his playmate. “Get down from there! It is too dangerous!”
“In a second, Young Master!” Jack called absently, his frown deepening on his young face as he continued his perusal of the shelves nearest to the ceiling. “I need to make sure I don’t miss a thing!”
Damian continued to claw at the shelves nearest to the floor, his eyes wide.
Dusan stared at them for a moment, his eyes set as he mentally cursed his ridiculous sister for her lack of attention.
Because it was so stupid of her to have a floor to ceiling bookshelf in her son’s room but no stairs to reach the books…
… and to give that bookshelf to a four year old.
He sighed, patting his nephew’s shoulder gently to calm him – one of the most awkward contacts he had ever had with a human being, he would have to admit later on – and climbing the massive shelves himself to reach the child currently at the top.
“Child,” he called softly, his lips pursed.
Jack turned to him then, his eyes wide
“Master Dusan,” the boy greeted, his surprise evident.
Dusan sighed once more, rolling his eyes before he reached with a hand to grasp the back of the child’s shirt and haul him over his shoulder, ignoring his high squeak of surprise as he descended back to the ground.
“Jack!” his nephew cried, running towards them and wrapping his short arms around his playmate’s waist, his hold tight and his cheeks flushed.
The older child blinked, his own cheeks flushing in embarrassment.
“Oh, Young Master,” he said softly, his own arms wrapping around Damian’s back to comfort him. “I never meant to scare you…”
“What could possibly be so important that you had to climb there!” his master snapped back, his little hands fisting on his servant’s white shirt. “You could have fallen to your death! You must never place yourself in such danger again! I will not allow it!”
Jack raised his eyes and locked them with Dusan’s for a moment, his confusion evident in the way he was struggling to come with an appropriate response.
Dusan simply shrugged his shoulders in reply, not feeling the least bit magnanimous towards the foreigner.
The child sighed.
“I wanted to prepare the best lesson for you, Young Master,” he whispered finally. “But there was no stairway and I thought that I would just look at the books before you woke up, as to start your lessons immediately after breakfast.”
Dusan prevented his snort of amusement only by his years of training.
“Efficient,” he muttered, eyes straying to the windows.
“You will never try such a thing again, My Own,” Damian scolded, his cheeks puffing angrily. “That’s an order.”
Dusan could feel Jack’s pale eyes on him once more, but he refused to be pulled into such a fight – considering he would have to side with his wretched nephew if he did. A sick child like Jackson was not to be placed in danger if he was to survive the Al Ghul household – so he kept his gaze firmly planted on the sunrise outside of the window and the gentle fluttering of leaves as they fell prey to the morning breeze.
Finally, he heard the boy huff and saw him lower himself to his knees before his distraught master, forehead lightly touching the floor.
“I apologize, Young Master,” he whispered. “This will not happen again.”
Damian crossed his arms over his chest for a moment, his pout still quite present, his eyes contemplative.
“What were you looking for anyways?” he asked haughtily. “That you had to climb up there?”
Jackson’s cheeks flushed once more.
“Ummm I was looking for appropriate books in French and English for us to start our language lessons, Young Master,” he replied, teeth sinking onto his bottom lip.
“There are more than enough books in the lower shelves, Jack,” Damian scowls deepened.
“None that were appropriate for the lesson I had planned, Young Master,” the child sighed. “Though I can adjust the lesson and use the Huis Clos? I must admit I went over myself and decided Jean Paul Sartre was not the most appropriate as an introduction to the language itself.”
Damian then seemed to remember himself, for he shook himself and turned to stare at his uncle for confirmation.
He had, indeed, decided to depend on his uncle for his experience.
Dusan blinked at them both, his own eyebrow raising.
“I don’t speak French,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
“Then we depend on your expertise, My Own,” Damian nodded. “If you deem my library useless we must certainly look for something more appropriate for your lessons. It is, after all, the main reason for your continued permanence at my side.”
Tim nodded, his eyes still on the ground.
Of course he had to forget himself and go exploring the massive bookshelf.
It was there mostly to bait him into misbehaving, he was sure.
That or maybe make him fall to his death.
Curse his father and the avid curiosity he had obviously passed to him through his genes.
“Uncle Dusan,” Damian said then, his whole face relaxing now that his Own was out of harm’s way and had explained himself appropriately. “I believe an excursion to town for appropriate books will be in the schedule for the day. We must get ready.”
Dusan stared, frozen for a second.
Take Talia’s precious darling boy and his servant out? As in… out.
Surely the boy wanted him dead.
Talia did mention she had much to do for the day and that she expected not to be disturbed until night.
And she had waved her hand at him as if he was a dog to follow her orders.
“Indeed, nephew,” he said neutrally, hands resting behind his back. “Get my nephew dressed, Jackson. We will have breakfast in the city.”
Both children smiled at him with excitement clear on their round faces before Damian grabbed Jack’s hand and practically dragged him towards the dressing room.
He was a bad, bad dog, it seemed.
“Woof,” he whispered, mostly to himself, as he followed them.
Chapter 9: The fox, the Rose, and the Little Prince.
The Marketplace was just getting ready to open to customers by the time Dusan parked the jeep and ushered the children out. Damian held onto Jack’s hand during the whole trip and didn’t look like he would let go any time soon.
Jack, on the other hand, stared at the street for a moment before a small smile curled his lips and he shook his head ruefully.
“Should have known,” he whispered to himself, shrugging slender shoulders.
“What should you have known, My Own?” Damian asked, blinking up at him.
The older boy’s smile turned sweet.
“I think I was too disoriented when I was in the desert, Young Master,” he replied, running his fingers through the child’s dark hair. “I was not aware of how close we are to the city.”
Damian nodded; his face snuggling into his own’s stomach.
“Still, that should be inconsequential, now that you live with me,” he growled kittenishly.
“It is, Young Master,” he assured. “I just wanted to know that I can come on foot should we need anything.”
Damian looked up, frowning.
“That’s what Ninja are for,” he explained, his lips pursing.
Dusan could see Jack struggle with another one of his speeches to respect his subjects as peers to gain their admiration and loyalty and the fact that he obviously knew his Master was only four years old and was still quite pushed to treat his own uncle with his due respect.
Dusan felt like rolling his eyes.
“I… like to do things myself,” the child said finally, shoulders slumped. “The satisfaction of one’s own labor brings me immeasurable joy, Young Master.”
Dusan coughed into his hand, carefully fixing his scarf over his hair and effectively smothering his snort of amusement.
Satisfaction of One’s Own Labor?
That kid was ambitious if he believed he was going to teach that to Talia’s little brat.
“I’m hungry,” he told the children, placing a hand on Jack’s shoulder and softly pushing him towards the street vendors. It would be better to stop the boy before he actually tried a lesson right there and then and earned his master’s tantrum on an empty stomach.
“Right,” Jack said after shaking his head. “Sorry, Master Dusan.”
The man nodded, one hand firmly on each child’s shoulders as he directed them towards a small shop with a bar where he could see the bright colored tea brewing.
Within minutes they were sitting on the bar with a steaming basket of falafel and small cups of aromatic tea.
“Thank you, Master Dusan,” Jack whispered, eyes set on his knees. Damian, on the other hand was already digging into his food, his nose wrinkling when the smell of the lamb cooking nearby reached his nose.
“This place is most plebeian,” the child complained, sipping his tea.
Dusan frowned, his own cup of tea in his hands.
“I think it’s delicious, Young Master,” Jack argues, his fingers reaching for another bite. “I wonder how many years has this placer served food. How many men and women have come here and left feeling satisfied. Is this a traditional place, Master Dusan?”
Dusan stared, an eyebrow raised at the child.
“I’ve come here whenever I am in town since I was a child myself,” he replied simply, waving a hand to an elderly woman behind a counter. “Father brought me here when I was my nephew’s age.”
Damian’s eyes widened, his own hands carefully placing his cup of tea on the table as he turned to stare at his uncle.
“My father used to do so as well,” Jack whispered, his smile small. “He would say: Son, I’m going to take you to a place where real men eat their food! It’ll make hair grown on your chest.”
Dusan and Damian turned to stare at him then, both with equal eyebrows raised in confusion.
“Are there really places where only men can eat, My Own?” the child asked.
“Yet your chest remains hairless,” Dusan added, tilting his head.
“Mother would come with us and eat more than Father,” he said, smiling. “All the while keeping a straight face.”
“Your mother, My Own?” Damian asked, awed.
“She was firmly opposed to gender norms,” he explained. “And would snatch any sort of dish she considered inappropriate from my hands and ate it herself.”
“Did she have a hairy chest, then?” Dusan inquired, an eyebrow raised.
Tim thought about his mother’s cold eyes, her slender fingers plucking the soup from his little hands as she glared at his father and started spooning the broth herself.
“Vodka and seafood, Jack?” she would ask. “To our three year old?”
“It’s tiger milk!” his father would protest, but by the time he had formulated a coherent argument for his ‘milk’, the soup was gone.
“As hairy as a bear,” he exclaimed, spreading his arms wide to express her gigantic size. “And twice as tall!”
To him, his mother would always be a colossus.
“It is no wonder my mother intimidates you so, My Own,” Damian said wisely – or as wisely as any four year old with perfect diction was able to be -, petting his servant’s hand. “She must be so different from your own mother.”
A few minutes later Jack was cleaning Damian’s face with a wet cloth, his lips pursed sternly.
“Young Master must present himself as orderly as possible at all times,” he admonished softly, his eyes set in concentration at his task. “Your mother specifically requested I take care of your appearance, Master.”
Damian indulged him then, rolling his eyes.
“If it is one of my mother’s orders, My Own,” he said, pouting.
“It is, Young Master,” Jack laughed that small laughter of his own that hinted he never did laugh all that often – one that Dusan grew used to hearing from his own lips – as he finished his task.
“Enough of this,” Damian said, smiling. “The book vendors you were so eager to peruse are already open for business, My Own, we must go at once!”
Before Dusan could tell the children to wait until he settled their tab, before he could grab either of them – by their clothes if necessary – Damian had grabbed Jack by the hand and was running down the street to the book vendors, all the while happily telling his servant of all the treasures his grandfather had found in markets such as this and whether they would be able to find a treasure of their own.
“… Fuck it,” whispered Dusan, staring at their small, retreating forms. Without looking at his hands he pulled several bills from his pocket and threw them on the table, picking his cloak and dashing as fast as he could after the children.
He was going to kill the brats in their sleep if they got lost.
He was going to kill the brats in their sleep even if they didn’t get lost.
Because he was supposed to guard them and while his sister’s hysteria would be terribly amusing if she found herself childless, his father’s punishment would mean his death.
But then again genetically engineered children were harder to catch than normal children and Jack wasn’t as weak as he wanted the Demon’s Head to think because he was matching Damian step by step, his eyes childishly bright and his smile small as the two disappeared in the forming crowd of early morning shoppers.
Dusan wanted to shoot them both, he really did, but there was something in the boy’s pale eyes, in the way his lips curled with hidden amusement and his fingers protectively curled around Damian’s own.
Something he rarely saw in the child, often when he thought himself alone – and he should know better because no one could ever be alone in the Al Ghul household – and his face turned to the skies. There was something in that gaze that seemed to be searching for something nor Damian nor Dusan could ever find.
Some mysterious knowledge that shaped each and every interaction the boy had with the world around him.
A terrible sweetness to his sadness.
Someone had broken this child far too many times, that much Dusan could tell, and many others had tried to piece him back together without success. And the child wanted to protect his nephew from the same pain by teaching him how to protect himself.
And judging by the way Jack would stare at him when he felt he wasn’t looking, the articulate way in which his lips would pronounce his name…
… He felt Jack wanted to protect him, Dusan Al Ghul, from the same fate.
He shook his head.
He found them an hour later near a small man with grey hair and wrinkled eyes holding a small hand mirror to Damian, who was admiring his reflection in the glass and the way a small, golden paper crown was resting in his hair.
“Damian,” the man hissed, eyes narrowed.
“Uncle Dusan!” Damian grinned, eyes wide. “My own made a crown for me! He says I look like Il Petty Prinz!”
Petty Prince alright, Dusan wanted to argue.
“Young Master,” called Jack’s voice from behind a stack of aged, yellowing paperback books. “It’s ‘Le Petit Prince’.”
“Right,” Damian nodded, holding his little golden crown with his hands. “It’s a book, Uncle Dusan, and Jack believes it will be perfect for our lessons.”
“Does he…” Dusan growled, arms crossing over his chest.
“It’s about a space prince who travels the stars and has adventures,” the boy continued. “He says he reminds him of me!”
Dusan rolled his eyes just in time for Jack to chime in once more from behind his fort.
“I said, Young Master,” he corrected. “That everyone reminds me of a character in the book.”
“Oh,” Damian pouted. “Then who would Uncle Dusan be?”
Dusan blinked, picking the aforementioned book from the pile Damian had at his feet and leafing through it with disinterest. His father had thrown the book away a few days after it had arrived to their base, stating it was an overly sentimental analysis for the weak-minded.
Dusan had picked it up, read it and hated himself.
And from what he recalled, there was no way Damian was anything like the Little Prince.
The Rose, maybe.
“Master Dusan is the fox, of course,” Jack said nonchalantly, his voice breaking nervously. “And you, Master, will become a wonderful Prince one day.”
“I will, won’t I?” Damian replied, his chest puffing proudly.
Ah, so there was a difference between being the Little Prince and becoming the Little Prince.
High expectations indeed, that boy had.
“Oh god!” Jack gasped from his hiding place, his head poking enough so his dust-covered hair and eyes were visible over the mountain of books he had been examining. “Sir! Do you have more of these?” he asked in accented Egyptian, which made the old man besides Damian squint.
“Les Adventures du Fantôme Gris?” he asked, polishing his glasses. “I think I do have a few, but most are in English and German. I think I have some in Russian as well.”
Jack’s smile was blindingly bright.
“We’ll take them all!”
“You like the Fantoom Grease, My Own?” Damian asked, tilting his head.
The older boy’s eyes turned that same shade of tenderlostbroken of before as he caressed the aged and splitting cover of the book.
“I think, Young Master,” he whispered. “That the Adventures of the Grey Ghost are something you will enjoy.”
“I trust your judgment, My Own,” Damian nodded, eyes back to his reflection and his little paper crown.
Dusan stared at the pile of books that they would be taking back to base with them.
“I hope you know what you are doing, Jack of the aging eyes,” he whispered to himself, picking up ‘The Mask of Zorro’ from the pile and leafing through.
Inside his pocked, two pieces of spun honey treats awaited their return home.
The children were making him weak.
Of maybe, deep inside, they were domesticating him.
The Fox indeed.
Chapter 10: Snake's Eyes
The children were in the patio again.
As they had been for the last week.
Without a fail, as soon as Damian finished his training and washed himself, he and his servant-playmate-tutor would curl in the patio under one of the fig trees and Jackson would read to Damian, slowly mouthing the words until they became familiar to him. Sometimes easily translating them when his grandson became confused, always patiently pausing to explain one or another cultural slang before continuing with the story.
Damian would listen, enraptured, his small head snuggly resting on Jackson’s thigh, as he narrated one of the hero’s many escapades.
“I don’t understand,” Damian asked that particular afternoon, eyes narrowed. “It would be so much easier for the Ghost to dispose of Malone instead of simply detaining him. He is going to use his connections with the local authorities to buy his freedom anyways.”
Ra’s nodded to himself, listening in intently.
It did make a lot more sense indeed.
“Yes,” Jackson agreed, puffing lightly to blow his hair away from his eyes. “But then again, the Ghost wouldn’t be a hero if he did kill Malone.”
Damian looked up at his servant, his frown deepening.
“He would be,” he said certainly. “He would be riding the city of a known threat.”
“But he would be taking another man’s life,” Jackson argued, shaking his head. “No man can decide who can live and who can die, no man is better than any other in that regard.”
Ra’s raised an eyebrow.
“The Ghost should, he is morally better, as the books have already established,” Damian argued back, sitting up.
Ra’s watched in satisfaction as Jackson struggled for a moment with his grandson’s logic and he had to admit, much to his amusement, that the boy had walked straight into such conundrum when he decided to impart that particular lesson to the heir of the League of Assassins.
“Yet it would not be honorable to break one’s word, correct?” interrupted Dusan as he approached the children with their customary tea.
Ra’s scowl deepened to mirror his grandson’s at his son’s irruption, especially when Jackson’s eyes brightened and his shoulders squared with sudden certainty.
“Correct,” he beamed. “He did promise his beloved that he would never become like the men he hunts, didn’t he?”
Damian remained silent, eyes lowering to his teacup – not before politely thanking his uncle as he had learnt to do a few months ago, Ra’s noticed – deep in thought.
“If he decided to kill, he would then become like Malone, who kills at will,” he said simply, sipping his beverage. “And therefore his promise to Miss Eve would be broken.”
“And he did promise to her on her deathbed,” Jackson added, taking his own cup with both hands. “Thank you, Master Dusan. I wasn’t aware you were reading the books yourself.”
“I’m not,” Dusan replied with a shrug, making himself comfortable on the tree by their side. “I’ve been listening to you, making sure the education you are providing for my nephew is adequate.”
Jackson’s shoulders slumped.
“Of course,” he sighed.
“Jack’s education is more than adequate, Uncle, do you not agree?” Damian preened, his smile smug.
Dusan simply shrugged his shoulders once more.
“So,” Damian surmised, putting his cup down. “A true hero never breaks his promise.”
“Unless he can’t help himself, of course,” Jackson hurried to add. “You must remember, Young Master, that the Grey Ghost is human and therefore cannot be expected to be infallible.”
“Hmm,” Damian nodded, snuggling once more onto his servant, arm wrapping around his stomach. “Continue then, I do want to know how is it that Matches Malone is smuggling those immigrants into the city.”
Jackson nodded, smile small.
Ra’s mouth pursed unpleasantly as he took a seat by the window, eyes tracking the three as they settled once more.
His son was spending an incredible amount of time around Damian and the child and he would need to sit down with his daughter and revise the lessons Jackson was giving his grandson before this continued.
All those stories the boy favored were dangerously close to the teachings of The Detective and certainly nothing Talia would want her darling son to be learning if she wanted him to remain her unquestioning puppet.
This Jackson boy was either far more intelligent that he let them believe or he was just coincidentally stumbling into things that were better left alone.
Plus the fact that there were not many records of any missing boy with his description bothered the Demon’s Head far more than he should allow himself to be bothered. It was particularly impossible for a boy like him to remain unwanted for long. He was far too educated, far too weak.
Even if he was an orphan like he claimed, a mind such as his would have raised a flag in his circles far earlier than this.
“Who sent you to us, child,” he whispered to himself, cold eyes set on the small form, his skinny arms and slender fingers that would occasionally linger over Damian’s hair to provide the sought attention his grandson so ardently demanded as he rested on his bony knees. As if the boy himself was a trained caregiver, a patient tutor far older than his years.
If he didn’t know any better, and he seldom did, he would wager this boy was one of the Detective’s minions, which would imply that young Bruce Wayne already knew of his illegitimate child and was plotting to slowly lure him away from their family.
But then again, The Detective had another child at the moment, one ruddy teenager with ready fists and a mocking snarl on his lips.
Also, if he really knew about Damian, Ra’s was sure Bruce would have stormed into their fortress, guns ablaze, eyes determined. Subtlety was not Bruce’s forte whenever his heart was involved.
No, this Jackson child was not acting on behalf of the so-called Batman.
Which made him infinitely more interesting to Ra’s.
If only the child was a little older, six years and he would have been the kind that attracted Ra’s like a moth, just as Damian’s father had once been.
A meeting with Talia was in order, he assumed.
Chapter 11: Ripples
A few days after he and Damian had finished book ten of the Grey Ghost, or ‘O Fantasma Cinzento e da Sociedade Secreta’ in which the Grey Ghost finally met with Tanya, the Russian spy (and he did have a tendency to meet up with the wrong woman at the wrong time, no wonder Bruce had ever had a thing for the femme fatale type) was when Talia had called them both to her study room and declared that her darling child would spend breakfast and dinner with her and her father every day, occasion in which they would revise the day’s lessons to make sure the appropriate content was taught to her son and that they didn’t waste time with some ‘silly children’s stories’.
Tim bit his lips as he fixed his charge’s shoes on his little feet and combed his hair back to make him presentable for that night’s dinner and Damian’s mother’s expectations, making sure the boy’s appearance was so perfect even Tim’s mother would have approved, despite what his personal feelings on such care were.
He shook his head, trying to dispel his pout – he was acutely aware his face was still too young and chubby to properly use the bat-scowl of displeasure – and smile at his charge as he bid him a pleasant dinner and watched until the boy disappeared in the corridors.
“You worry too much,” Dusan whispered behind him, as always appearing on silent feet when Tim least expected it.
Thank god he had enough training – thanks to Dick’s usual affectionate attacks – not to jump when the older man decided to mess with him.
“I thought you would go to dinner as well, Master Dusan,” Tim sighed, turning to stare into the man’s black eyes. “It is a family dinner, after all.”
Dusan shrugged his shoulders, as he often did when he felt he had no words that would make Tim comfortable to hear, his whole pose nonchalant.
“I’m not the kind for a family dinner,” he said. “I don’t particularly enjoy the sound of my sister’s cooing.”
“It must be unpleasant,” Tim agreed, a small smile curling his lips. “It’s a shame thought, family is important, no matter how annoying.”
Dusan raised an eyebrow, unconcerned.
“You have experience, then?” he asked, making himself comfortable on the ornate chair Damian always favored, and yes, Tim had noticed that Dusan tended to prefer the same pieces of furniture and china that Damian did when the boy wasn’t there, as if to mark his own presence in their little nest. “With annoying family members, I mean?”
Tim shrugged, hands instantly reaching for the security of his books.
“I was an only child most of my life,” he replied, fingers running over the worn cover of the book he had planned for the day and had been unable to read to Damian. ‘Le Fantôme Gris et le Dragon de Jade’ was the perfect introduction that he had thought to give Damian to the idea that some villains were not actually bad people and could be reasoned with. “But I did have foster brothers and sisters at some point when my parents died.”
“Annoying Foster Siblings?” Dusan blinked, staring at the child.
“Oh yes,” Tim said with a small, fond smile. “The eldest was obsessed with expressing his love in increasingly physical ways, while the second was the complete, violent opposite and the daughter was so emotionally awkward that the most amazing monstrosities sprouted from her lips, and the youngest son…. Well, he was so lost.”
“You loved them,” Dusan surmised, tilting his head.
“More than life itself,” Tim agreed, eyes downcast. “More than I was ever able to tell them.”
“Then why did you leave them?” the man asked, confused. “You obviously miss them.”
“I had no place in their household,” the boy confessed. “They all had different concerns and to ask to be part of them would be so selfish of me. I had different needs, we had grown apart and I could never ask for their attention knowing they had so many more important things to concentrate on than my childish demands.”
It sounded pitiful when he said it outloud, knowing Dick would leave everything if Tim had just said he needed him, that he needed him to cuddle him and sit with him and watch some of their stupid shows on the tv, and Cass would have no problem flying all the way back to Gotham to sit with him on a rooftop or another, staring at him with her wise eyes until he could see whatever advice he needed reflected in them.
Hell, even Bruce would bench him and pat his shoulder if he just asked.
But he didn’t ask.
He could never ask.
He was not the youngest.
Damian was the youngest then, and he was so angry and betrayed, so morally ambiguous and…
Tim felt his eyes widen, his hands lose their grip on his book as it fell onto the carpet.
If he stayed here, would he be causing ripples?
Theoretically speaking, Damian had been the one person close to him that he had the flimsiest connection to, so any ‘ripples’ he might cause here would not ruin his own chances at returning home.
But then again, the violent, mistrustful and disrespectful Damian he had known back home was completely different from the child who sought his company and would cuddle in his arms at night, listening attentively at his advices, learning from him to be respectful, cautious, to learn before judging, to show politeness in order to gain respect.
Was this change in his disliked younger brother creating the ripples he was supposed to avoid at all costs?
Was he endangering the future?
“Jackson?” Dusan asked, raising from the chair, slender hands reaching for him.
But Tim couldn’t hear him, his eyes were focused on his bare feet, his mind trying to find the common thread of his own timeline that might be affected with this new Damian.
The possibilities were endless.
If this softer Damian decided he wanted to meet his father Tim would have no heart to tell him no, and then there would be a third person in Ethiopia, assassin trained to save Jason and Tim’s own usefulness would be…
And then, like Klarion said… Kon and Bart, and Bruce and…. No.
But then again, Damian…
How could he choose someone’s life over another’s?
“Child, I am not adept at this,” Dusan whispered, and the sudden noise and movement of his small body forced Tim to blink and look up. “This is new to me.”
Surprised, Tim found himself enveloped by Dusan’s arms, his face pressed against the man’s white shirt, his hands tightly holding onto the warm cotton.
“Master Dusan,” he whispered, shocked.
“I was wondering when this would happen and I hoped Damian would be with you,” Dusan said awkwardly, one hand petting Tim’s hair.
“When this would…” Tim repeated, blinking – oddly enough, his eyes were stinging. “I don’t understand.”
Dusan looked down at him, his own eyes solemn.
“When you would cry, I mean,” he said simply, trying to curl his lips into a reassuring smile and failing miserably. “You haven’t cried since I met you and I think that’s not normal?”
Tim blinked once more, feeling the wetness of his tears rolling down his cheeks.
He was crying.
“Oh,” he whispered, not sure what to say.
“I’ve seen some parents do this so,” Dusan continued, biting his bottom lip. “Cry now before you explode, I believe it will be more unpleasant the more you try to suppress your emotions.”
Tim stared at him, feeling his chest constrict the more uncomfortable the older man looked.
Dusan Al Ghul, the White Ghost was embracing him.
Because he had worried about him.
Ra’s Al Ghul’s son had stepped out of his own comfort zone for him and even though he was failing miserably at being reassuring, Tim could only feel grateful for this man, this anchor to a reality that was slowly becoming his own.
His small hands tightened on Dusan’s shirt as he sunk his face into the fabric, feeling how his knees lost their strength.
And he cried.
He cried like he hadn’t cried since Kon died, since Bruce died.
He cried like he hadn’t cried since he last saw his father.
His back spammed over and over as his sobs wracked his body, his voice broke as he wordlessly called out to those he wasn’t sure anymore he would ever see again, those he knew he would not save, no matter how much his hands itched to protect.
He cried for all those times he hadn’t cried as he was growing up.
He cried until he had no more tears to cry, until his strength left him and his eyes closed with exhaustion.
When he felt himself ready to open his eyes again he was resting on the small cot that had become his bed, covered up to his neck in the softest blankets the room had – those that were usually reserved for Damian’s personal use – and the clinking of silver against china.
Once his eyes grew accustomed to the faint light of the room he noticed how Damian was sitting by his side on the cot, one hand firmly holding a fork as he cut a full meal in bite-sized pieces, perfect for consumption.
His other hand was holding Tim’s tightly, as if the child was afraid his servant would disappear if he let go.
“Master?” he whispered, his voice hoarse and pitiful.
Damian turned to him, his eyes wide, red-rimmed.
Tim immediately felt wretched.
“I am going to feed you now, My Own,” the child whispered cautiously, holding a spoonful of dinner in his hand. “And you are going to eat.”
“I…” Tim tried to argue, shaking his head.
“Also,” Damian interrupted, scowling. “Uncle Dusan informed me of your condition. And I must say I am quite disappointed, My Own.”
“I’m sorry, Young Master,” he said softly, adverting his eyes.
“Next time you feel sad or lonely,” Damian said, shaking his head. “You will come to me so I can comfort you, as my emotional grasp is quite superior to my uncle’s. And…” he hesitated.
“And you will tell me what is it that you need to smile again, because I will provide it all, I will make it all better,” the child whispered, color rising to his cheeks. “If you are sad, I feel sad too… because I love you, Jackson.”
Tim felt how his nose twitched, his chin trembled and a tear dropped from his eyelid.
Still, he smiled.
“I love you too, Young Master Damian.”
Damian nodded, his chest puffing.
“So no more tears now,” he continued, offering a bite of food. “I swear on my life you will have no reason to cry anymore.”
Tim nodded, eating the food.
Maybe things would be better.
Maybe he would find a home with this awkward people that were still willing to offer him some semblance of normalcy.
Maybe it was his destiny, and if so…
… it would be okay.
Chapter 12: Lesson
Dusan watched as the children ran around the kitchen while the cook and his aides stared nervously at them.
Jack had mentioned a silly tradition of his old household’s of baked goods and colorful sugar confections that, of course, Damian has instantly demanded to be a part of. His little hands eagerly pulling his playmate into action who, as usual, followed indulgently behind as he listened to his Young Master’s excited babbling.
It was becoming a routine of sorts, between them.
Jack would suggest a lesson plan disguised as a game – humming a happy tune under his breath Dusan was sure had a second meaning only the child understood – and Damian would instantly latch onto the idea and demand they proceed at once.
Dusan would shrug his shoulders and remain a few steps behind, attentively watching over to make sure none for the children got hurt and that no one approached them more than necessary
It was a comfortable routine.
He continued then to observed as Damian struggled measured a cup of brown sugar, tongue peeking out due to the effort while Jack carefully examined a couple of eggs, checked them for roundness, shaking them to listen to their wetness and then finally allowed them to sink in a glass of water, all the while explaining to his charge about putrefaction and oxygen and maybe even embryos.
The older man was not sure.
Yet he felt himself smile.
In the months he had been assigned as Damian’s – and really Jack’s – watcher, he had gone from absolutely repudiating his fate as their glorified wet nurse to looking forward to the hours between meals that he got to spend with both, even if it was to simply stand there and watch them interact.
Plus, it was the first time in a long while he got to sit down every afternoon for a cup of tea with people who actually wanted to spend time in his company.
“You wonder whether normal, mortal families act as such?” the sibilant voice of his father whispered treacherously in his ear, making the man turn in surprise to stare at him.
It had been centuries since his Father had been able to startle him.
“Father,” he greeted, forcing his face into a mask of icy nonchalance
“I am most surprised, Dusan,” the older man said, hands behind his back as he turned to watch the children himself.
“I am most surprised you even dared to underestimate me and my loyalty,” Ra’s clarified “My devotion to those who are my own.”
The younger man’s brows furrowed in confusion.
“Damian is Talia’s concern,” Ra’s interrupted “He is not my son for me to worry about.”
Dusan bit the inside of his cheek.
“You, however…” Ra’s continued, his smile a small curl of the lips that seemed more threatening than comforting.
“I am perfectly fine, Father,” Dusan assured, his own hands coming to rest behind his back in an imitation of his father’s, knowing that if not his words, his body language could surely betray his nervousness if he was not careful.
Both men locked gazes, examining eachother and looking for any flaw, any weakness the other could exploit.
As it was the way of the Al Ghul.
Finally, Ra’s sighed
“You are growing attached, my child,” he said, his voice soft “Such attachment can only end in heartache.”
Dusan felt the air leave his lungs and a constricting, bitter lump of ice settle on his throat until all words were taken from him.
“Jack is…” he managed to utter, swallowing compulsively.
“The boy is going to die and you know it,” his father interrupted once more. “As with each member of our family, I allowed Damian to grow attached as the boy is to be nothing more than a passing fancy, a favored pet at most.”
“No…” the younger man whispered, eyes straying to where Jack was now wiping the flour from the top of Damian’s nose with a small rag, his smile gentle, his smile sad and heartfelt as always.
“And as all childhood pets in our family. “ Ra’s continued, undaunted. “He will become a lesson about letting go for my grandson.”
Ra’s left then, without another word. Dusan could hardly notice him leaving anyways, because his eyes had already become glassed, his limbs tense and tight as he felt the world starting to spin and darken around him, sounds and images slowly moving out of synch in his despair.
Because yes, he knew quite well what happened to the beloved pets of the Al Ghul family. He could still remember being Damian’s age and running around the fields with his trusted pet, his enormous dog whose name the ravages of time had already erased from his memory.
He could easily remember resting with his head on the animal’s flank, his hand set on top of his heart and allowing its warmth to lull him to sleep every night.
And he remembered his father patiently explaining to him how his attachment was clouding his judgment as he pressed a silver blade against his small hands, how Talia was trying to help him learn how to let go and that was why she had poisoned his friend and companion, and couldn’t he see the agony such poison was causing it? Couldn’t he hear the agonizing howls of pain as the creature twisted and turned onto the dusty floor, eyes unfocussed, mouth dry.
And then his father was whispering in his ear, seductive like the snake he was often compared to, that the animal was going to die anyway, so the choice would be his
Either accompany the beast as it continued to suffer and finally died in a week.
Or release it from its agony right now and save it some dignity.
Let it go.
His friend had looked directly at him as its breathing grew shallow and the blood was warm in his hand and there were no more sounds, no more warmth, no more nights of security and the soothing heartbeat underneath his palm.
He had learnt his lesson.
He finally fell to his knees on the patio as he realized he could easily picture Jack’s young, round face and his sadbrokenancient blue eyes as the life was slowly sucked out of him, as his tiny hands grew cold and slack and Damian was forced into the same lesson Dusan had once been himself.
He felt fright beyond anything he had ever experienced before.
“Master Dusan?” Jack asked from the doorway as he approached him, a concerned frown of his pale face, his hands holding a heavy tray with a tea set and a plate of colorful, yet deformed-looking pastries. “Master Dusan, are you okay? Did something happ---“
The boy couldn’t continue, however, because the man had violently pulled him by the shoulders and into his arms with a deafening clatter of porcelain and silver echoed around them on the floor, forgotten by them both as the man clung to the boy and hid his face on his white cotton shirt, breathing in his herbal, childish scent and allowing a shuddering breath to escape his trembling lips as he imagined the heartbeat under his ear to stop, the rise and fall of his chest to disappear. He needed to save this little miracle worker of his. Life would hold no meaning if he failed.
And Dusan fell prey to his fear and allowed himself to sob.
“You can’t stay here, Jack,” he said then, ashamed of how weak his voice sounded, how hoarse and small. “You need to leave us.”
He felt a hand then, a small, hesitant, warm hand on his hair and his back, doing their best to offer support and caring and yet unable to hide the child’s fear.
“Master Dusan…” he whispered.
Dusan tightened his hold on the boy he had come to – he realized – care as the child he knew life itself would never bless him with, frightened beyond his year and feeling powerless to stop the shudders of his limbs as he cried for a sorrow he had not known he was able to feel.
Chapter 13: "Meeting."
Days started to blend together for the makeshift family of three, however the time the three of them spent actually together was becoming less and less in Tim's humble opinion.
Damian spent all meals with his mother and grandfather as per The Demon's Head's orders, and Dusan, that would usually search him out during those times, now disappeared outside the base, a manic look in his dark eyes.
Tim was becoming more and more used to having his meals alone now - and wasn't that a throwback to the life he was originally leading at his age? All alone in a house far too big for a child his age? - and the sixteen year old part of his brain was conflicted over the fact that he now looked forward to the way Damian would wrap his arms around his shoulders, burying his face on Tim's neck after each period of separation between them as a childish way to reassure himself that Tim was still there, still whole.
That he was reading maybe too much meaning in the way Dusan's hand would hesitantly fall into his hair, his skeleton thin hands carding through his hair, combing it back from his eyes.
It had been a long time since he had felt this loved... And that was sad, wasn't it.
He had to admit that, deep in the back of his mind, the idea of never returning home was not as frightening as he originally thought.
But then again, Kon, Bart... Bruce.
He shook his head, taking a sip of his tea.
No, he needed to be there for them, he needed to return if only to make sure they would be okay.
Even if... selfishly, he knew he could be happy here, with Damian and Dusan and the ninjas that had taken to waving at him in greeting every morning.
He pushed his hand inside his pocket, fingers tightly curling around the twisted pieces of plastic that had once been the green plastic buttons of his pajamas. Ever since Dusan had pulled them from the fire for him, he had been keeping them with him at all times, trying to pull strength from them and from the memory of his mother’s pale hand on his chest, of his father’s laughter against his hair as they hugged him.
“My Own! Did you have breakfast already?” Damian asked, pulling Tim out of his thoughts as the boy wrapped his arms around his shoulders, his cheek pressed tightly against Tim’s chest, as if the boy comforted himself with the sound of his heartbeat, with the certainty that he was alive, and it was no wonder, in this base where people could die at any second.
He felt himself smile.
“Indeed I did, Young Master,” he greeted, his own arms curling around the child, basking in the warmth of his skin. “Are you ready for today’s math lesson?”
Damian wrinkled his nose, his eyes scrunching up with the gesture.
“I would rather we were to continue our studies of french, My Own, the language would be most useful in the future,” he replied, his eyes closing as he snuggled his face against Tim’s shirt.
“And, of course,” Tim said idly. “It has nothing to do with the way the last Grey Ghost book ended, doesn’t it?”
Damian had the foresight not to blush, which for someone his age, was quite impressive.
“I…” he hesitated. “I find myself in the dilemma of facing studies I find most tedious and wanting to indulge in pursues of more pleasurable variation.”
Enormous blue eyes – calm ocean blue, night sky blue… Bruce’s blue – stared up at him with trust, kindness, adoration.
Tim sighed, long, hard.
“Tell you what?” he asked, his fingers tucking a lock of hair behind Damian’s ear – the boy was in need of a haircut, apparently. “We’ll ask Master Dusan if he will take us to town to get the next Grey Ghost book…”
Damian’s face lit in delight.
“But! Once we get it, you will work all morning on your math,” Tim said quickly. “This way you will have something to look forward to after lunch.”
Damian’s eyes were so wide, so intelligent, then. It almost hurt to look at them.
“A compromise,” he whispered, awed.
“An exercise in patience,” Tim corrected. “Do we have a deal?”
“Yes! Of course, My Own!” Damian beamed, leaning on his tiptoes to land a kiss on Tim’s cheeks before dashing towards the corridors. “I’ll go inform Uncle Dusan… “
He stopped when he noticed Tim’s crossed arms and raised eyebrow.
He composed himself.
“I will go and ask if Uncle Dusan will be willing to take us to town?” he tried again. His cheeks filling with color when Tim smiled in approval.
“Go before I change my mind, Young Master,” the older boy said gently, shaking his head.
Damian didn’t have to be told twice as he dashed towards his uncle’s room.
“You are doing a good job,” Dusan said from behind Tim, where the boy had known he had been hiding for a while now. “I am still shocked my nephew is not about to try and monopolize my time.”
“He just needed a nudge in the right direction,” Tim said simply, shrugging his shoulders. “He is a very loving boy.”
“His mother will not be pleased you want to bring him out of the protection of this base again,” the older man mused, resting a fond hand on Tim’s hair as he was to do more often nowadays. “She might even give you the eyebrow of doom this time.”
Tim blinked up at Dusan.
“Is that a bad thing?” he asked, confused.
“It’s mostly her ‘I want to skin you but Damian and Father would be pissed’ face,” he explained, eyes skywards. “One gets used to it after a while.”
“I’ll… trust your expertise then, Master Dusan,” Tim said, hesitant.
Dusan’s face became somber, his eyes narrowed against the morning sun.
“You must know I would never let her hurt you, little Jack,” he said seriously, his whole body practically vibrating with purpose. “You are an important part of this household now. And I shall protect you from those who wish you harm.”
Tim had to swallow thickly, remembering the way those same hands that now offered him comfort had been the same ones who broke his arm, how those eyes that stared at him in determination had one spouted such hate, such terrible loathing, as Dusan, the White Ghost, had tried to destroy him and his mentor on the orders of his terrible Father.
There would be a day in which Tim and Dusan would fight.
Many, many more days of them meeting and fighting and being enemies, in the future Tim had to leave for.
But for now…
…. For now, he just rested a hand on Dusan’s own, comforting and shy and a little sad.
“Thank you, Master Dusan,” he whispered thickly. “Your regard makes me feel humbled.”
“Ah! Uncle Dusan!” Damian beamed, running towards them and wrapping a hand on Dusan’s pant leg, as close as he dared to give the man a hug. “The maid informed me of your presence in the courtyard!”
Dusan sighed, his usual small smile stretching his lips.
“Indeed, you must have missed me on your way to my rooms, Nephew,” he said indulgently, shaking his head. “Your Jackson has informed me you wish to go to town today?”
Damian nodded eagerly, his eyes wide.
“My Own has promised me we shall study French after lunch if I finish my math this morning,” he explained. Dusan raised an eyebrow, his lips twitching.
“A compromise?” he asked.
Damian shook his head, his brows scrunching.
“An exercise in patience,” he corrected, parroting Tim.
Dusan shook his head again, his mirth evident in every line of his posture.
“Then I cannot, in good conscience, impede such important exercise,” he said, producing two cloaks from his back and gently fastening them around the boy’s heads.
“Thank you, Uncle Dusan!” Damian grinned, quickly wrapping his arms around his uncle’s neck and releasing him, eager to go.
Dusan paused for a moment, shocked, before shaking himself and nodding towards the children.
“Shall we go?” he prompted, dusting his clothes. “And this time, you two must promise not to wander away again.”
“We promise, Uncle,” Damian said instantly, his hand wrapped around Tim’s. “Don’t we, My Own?”
“Of course,” Tim agreed.
The ride towards town was quick, the time mostly occupied by a short geography lesson in which Damian would count all the rock formations and name them as best as he could, counting off the kilometers and the time it would take them to go back and forth at different speeds.
Dusan would sometimes nod approvingly at them, doing his best to hide his amusement when Damian got in his head that he might want to learn how to drive next, as it looked like a skill he might need in the future, and Tim did his best to explain that a child that had yet to reach the pedals could not possibly learn how to drive the car they were in…
… and then settling into a more theoretical explanation of the controls of the car if only to stop Damian from pouting.
Mr. Beghum greeted them all with a smile as they approached their bookstand, waving a hand to usher them towards a pile of tomes he had personally separated for them since their last visit and politely inquiring after their health as he asked his daughter for tea, as he knew that whenever Tim and Damian came into his store they would take their sweet time perusing as many books as they could.
Tim smiled at him as best as he could while calculating the money they had on hand and how many books they would need until their next visit. The capability of their jeep and Damian’s enthusiasm with the adventures of the Grey Ghost.
He idly wondered if it would be a good idea to buy Damian a few of the coloring books he had been eyeing the last time they were there as well, and how he could explain to Talia their existence.
… A simple exercise to improve a child’s dexterity?
An excellent way to engage Master Damian’s concentration and abstract thinking?
The way Damian was, even now, watching the coloring books so hungrily, made Tim’s mind for him.
The kid always had an artistic inclination, from what Alfred had told him.
“…And you will find that all my contacts have been more than eager to provide as many titles as possible for the little ones and… sir?” Mr. Beghum asked, his moustache twitching.
Tim raised his eyes from the books he was holding in his hands. Dusan looked distracted, his eyes going left and right, his shoulders tensing.
“Master Dusan?” Tim asked, walking towards him. It wasn’t like the immortal to be distracted whenever they were out, especially in the presence of civilians. Despite his protests and posturing, the man was a trained member of the League of Shadows.
If anything, Dusan was always vigilant when they were exposed to the outside.
Dusan placed his dark eyes on him.
“Jackson?” he asked back, his shoulders relaxing minutely.
“Is anything the matter, Master Dusan?” he asked, his voice low, his own hands clenching and unclenching.
The man shook his head, silent for a moment.
“I thought…” he hesitated, his eyes straying towards a window. “I thought I saw someone familiar…”
“A friend of yours, Mr. Dusan?” Mr. Beghum asked absently, reaching for the tray his daughter brought from the back and meticulously serving them tea.
Dusan turned back towards Tim’s worried expression, his mouth set on a thin line.
He slowly shook his head.
“Just someone I once met,” he said. “Would you children be okay if I left you here for just a moment while I say hello?”
Tim could tell there was something Dusan was not – could not – telling. He could see it in the way he kept him and Damian as far away from all windows and doors, how his hand rested against the hilt of his hidden knife.
An enemy then?
Someone from a rivaling faction?
The Council of Spiders?
“Not a problem, Mr. Dusan,” Mr. Beghum said amiably. “The children are very well behaved, it will be a pleasure to look after them for you.”
Dusan and Mr. Beghum locked gazes, an unspoken conversation going on between them for a few seconds, making Tim wonder how come he had not thought that Mr. Beghum, old, plump and cheerful as he was, could be a contact to the League of Shadows…
… of course.
“It will only be a moment,” Dusan said finally. “Be good in my absence, you two.”
“Of course, Uncle Dusan,” Damian said quickly, his hand reaching for Tim’s tightly.
Clever child, not as oblivious as Tim would have anticipated.
He squeezed Damian’s fingers against his own in reassurance.
“We will make you proud, Master Dusan,” he said, making sure to keep Damian behind him, protected.
Dusan stared at the two of them for a moment, his whole posture one of warning, before he nodded, patted them both on the head and left.
Tim watched him go with a small sigh, his throat feeling constricted as he wondered what exactly was happening.
Damian tugged at his hand.
He smiled down at him.
“Let’s just get our purchases in order, Young Master?” he asked, trying to portray a calm he didn’t feel. “That way when Master Dusan returns we can go back home before we are missed.”
Damian nodded, his hand not releasing Tim’s nonetheless.
Tim would later be thankful of the fact he was on edge at the time, the fact he had been expecting the worse and that he had decided to protect Damian from whatever could come between them.
He had been ready to react at the least provocation.
Because when he had turned towards Mr. Beghum, his lips parted to inquire about some books in Greek for some lessons he had been planning, the outer walls of the modest bookshop had crumbled into nothing, the windows exploding and falling over him.
The world in front of his eyes when white and black and red as a hoard of creatures burst into the opening…
And everything fell into chaos.
The roaring of explosions deafened him, the heat of the fire and the wind full of smoke and sand seemed to smother him, the blood pooling onto his shirt told him that the red demon thing that had attacked them had managed to injure him, but there was no time to contemplate that.
Hell, there was no time to contemplate anything.
His fingers reached for a pole still holding one of the merchant awnings up, ripping it with all his strength while using his other hand to keep Damian’s small body hidden.
“Stay behind me, Young Master,” he hissed, his eyes frantically searching for more attackers. He knew whoever had summoned a demon had not just summoned one, therefore, more must be on their way.
“My Own!” Damian cried, his eyes wide, frightened.
“Don’t worry, Young Master,” Tim tried to sooth. “I’ll protect you.”
Ah, there they were, all brandishing swords made of the darkest ebony, fierce and drooling fangs bared as they charged towards them.
Tim narrowed his eyes, reaching to stop the stab of a sword with the wood, using the demon’s force against it as he pushed it backwards, quickly turning in place to crush another one’s windpipe with the handle and ignoring the sickening sound it made at it disintegrated into dust.
A claw reached for his arm, but he had been trained by the best of the best and he was light enough, fast enough, to crush the creature’s legs and catch another on the head just before it was able to fall on top of Damian.
He panted, feeling the strain his movement was causing his younger body, his untrained muscles protesting against the demands he was imposing on them.
His head swam with a mix of shock and bloodloss, his hands shook as they tried to hold onto his weapon, his only means of protection.
Four demons disintegrated before him, three more circling them.
It didn’t matter, he was sure Master Dusan was looking for them right now, he just needed to hold out until the man, far more skilled, far more trained, could reach them. He would be able to protect them…
… protect Damian.
One of the demon let out a terrible screech, salivating mouth glinting against the sun.
Tim took a step back.
Damian clung to his waist, his cloak forgotten in lieu of pressing it against Tim’s still bleeding back.
Not this way, Tim thought, as he struggled to keep their attackers back, please, not this way.
From the ashes and the sand, from the smoke and dust, what seemed to be twenty more demons rose, all armed, all focused on them and ready to charge.
Tim’s hand tightened on his weapon, his other reaching to press Damian against his side, to hide the child’s face and eyes from the carnage about to ensue.
A shadow passed over them just as the creatures started jumping.
Tim closed his eyes.
“Azarath Metrion Zinthos!” a voice cried, strong, familiar, echoing all over the destroyed market place.
The demons shrieked, high-pitched, devastating.
Then, there was only silence.
The shadow still remained over Damian and Tim, growing larger and larger behind Tim’s eyelids.
“Are you two okay?” another voice asked in concern. Strong hands, hard and warm, sized Tim by the shoulders, carefully trying to ensure their well-being. “Did they hurt you?”
Tim opened his eyes, dizzy but relieved, his hold on Damian shaking yet still strong.
“Yes,” he whispered. “We are fine, Master Du-…”
Tim’s voice died, his eyes widening as he finally raised his face to stare at the apparition before him.
For those warm hands full of power and might were not Dusan’s cold, slender fingers.
The voice still questioning them, worried for them, was not Dusan’s soft baritone.
“You are bleeding, kid,” the man before them said, his expression hesitant. “Are your parents near? You need medical attention.”
Tim couldn’t utter a word, he couldn’t even breath.
Before them, kneeling, worried, careful as always.
Chapter 14: "Oath"
Tim woke up with a gasp, Dick’s name on the tip of his tongue, his eyes wide and his left hand reaching blindly, unable to stop itself as his body surged with a burst of urgency.
“WAIT!” he cried, his back protesting and his skin pulling.
Tiny arms reached for his shoulders, careful hands caressing his cheeks his hair.
Tim allowed himself to be pulled into Damian’s embrace, his breathing ragged, his voice hoarse.
“D.. Young… Master?” he asked, confused.
“It is alright, My Own,” Damian whispered carefully, yet not able to hide how his voice broke with emotion. So different this boy was to the Damian that Tim would meet in the future. “We are home, once more, the monsters won’t harm you again.”
Tim looked around them and indeed, they were back at the compound, back in Damian’s bedroom. His arms were covered tightly with bandages and he could now identify the telltale feeling of stitches pulling at the skin of his back.
He swallowed, his throat dry.
“What… happened?” he asked, forcing his shoulders to relax, if only because Damian’s hands on his hair were trembling, and the child looked so tired, so unlike his usually composed self. He had scared him, then, or whatever had happened scared him this much, for him to cling to him.
Damian hid his face in Tim’s sweat-soaked hair, his voice was small.
“After you… fell...” the child whispered. “The man tried to take you away, he said he was going to save you but… but I didn’t want to be separated from you, you are My Own, after all, my Jack.”
Tim nodded slowly, of course Dick would want to take him to a hospital, even if he didn’t know him, didn’t know them.
He frowned lightly.
Had Dick noticed he had been protecting a miniature Bruce?
“And then…?” he prompted when Damian fell silent.
“Uncle Dusan found us just in time, he had been fighting the monsters to reach us, you see,” the child hesitated, his arms tightening around Tim. “He and the other man fought, the… that man is an enemy of ours, Uncle said. It was brutal.”
Tim’s shoulders tensed, Dick and Dusan fighting.
“But Master Dusan is ok?” he asked, unsure.
Damian nodded against his hair.
“He couldn’t kill the enemy, he was hurt, but he managed to drive the enemy away for long enough so we could escape,” he confessed, as if such information was a shameful secret. “It’s been a week, My Own.”
He had been unconscious for a week.
By now Dick would be long gone.
Tim closed his eyes, breathing in Damian’s scent of fresh water and summer.
He wasn’t even sure he would contact Dick even if the older man was around anymore. Not if it meant endangering Damian and Master Dusan, and what did that say about him? So be unable to chose one member of his family, his brother, over the small family he was slowly coming to realize he was loving more and more as time went by.
“A whole week,” he said finally, his voice as small as Damian’s, his fingers reaching to caress Damian’s in order to reassure him. “And you have been by my side this whole time, Young Master?”
Damian huffed against Tim’s ear, half amused and half outraged.
“Of course I did!” he admonished gently, so very young, so absolutely sure. “You are My Own, My Jack, and you saved my life, it would only be fair for me to nurse you back to health.”
Tim huffed a small laugh.
“It is the duty of a servant to ensure the safety of his master,” he whispered, his own tired arms wrapping around Damian and pulling the smaller boy to sit on his lap, rocking him back and forth. Smiling lightly when the child snuggled against him, his little hands clinging to his shirt. “I could never forgive myself if something happened to you while you were in my care.”
Damian scowled, his nose wrinkling, his eyes watering.
“I could never forgive myself if something happened to you...” he mumbled. “You cannot allow yourself to be hurt again, My Own.”
Tim sighed, his arms tightening around Damian.
“I will try my best, Young Master,” he promised.
“Young Master Damian,” a voice called respectfully from the door. “The Demon’s Head request your presence and that of your… pet.”
Damian’s shoulders tensed, his mouth curled into a snarl.
“Ubu, how dare you enter my chambers without permission?” he demanded, turning to the massive man. “Do not presume that you can take the same liberties with my property as I allowed my Uncle Dusan.”
Tim forced himself to relax as best as he could. Ubu had been around the complex once or twice, he had seen him from the corner of his eye, but he was always around Ra’s and never had spoken to them directly, Talia considering him too uncouth to be in the presence of her darling boy. He was always enormous and stoic, silent like a shadow. Tim had tried his best but the presence of a member of the League he had – will have – fought so many times made it impossible to relax in his presence, especially now. For him to have entered without knocking, surely Ra’s meant business.
“Young Master,” Tim tried to reason. “If your honoured grandfather requests our presence we must oblige him.”
Damian turned to him, his eyes wide.
“My Own, you just woke up, surely Grandfather would understand you are not fit to move from bed just yet,” he said, pouting.
Tim ran his fingers through Damian’s hair, his smile small.
“I am fine, Young Master,” he reassured. “You nursed me back to health and your Grandfather is waiting. I will be okay.”
Tim hid his wince as Ubu nodded, as if agreeing with him, his thick arms crossed over his massive chest.
Tim would be a fool not to recognize the threat for what it was.
“But, My Jack,” Damian tried to protest.
“It will only be a minute, if I don’t feel good I will tell you at once, so your grandfather does not see me as a liability, ok?”
Damian seemed conflicted, his duty towards his family and towards his Jack’s health clear in his childish face. Tim felt bad for him, so young and so tense.
“If you feel faint you must tell me, of course,” he agreed finally, slowly getting out of bed and fixing his wrinkled clothes with clumsy hands. Tim wondered whether the two of them should bathe and change, as it was obvious Damian hadn’t moved from his side in days but Ubu’s muscles were tensing, his pose turning impatient by the second, more delays would not be tolerated by the man, even if it meant presenting his lord and master with two dirty little boys in their sweat-soaked pijamas.
He sighed, slowly getting out from bed himself, smiling with pride when his knees did not give out from under him or how his head did not sway from left to right with a wave of dizziness.
Damian grasped his hand instantly, his eyes set on his face, examining his every move.
Tim looked down at him and nodded. didn’t really want to worry the younger child.
Ubu nodded at them, visibly satisfied, which only made Damian bristle like a cat and slowly, ever so slowly, follow the other man, making sure each and every step that Tim was alright.
It was both cheeky and annoying, and the sweetest thing.
Usually, the trip from Damian’s quarters to the Demon’s Head’s study would have taken five minutes, ten if Damian was sleepy or trying to be difficult for the sake of being cuddled (which wasn’t often, but Tim still allowed it from time to time because Damian still had chubby cheeks and ok, he admitted it, he was really cute), this time the child decided to be the little shit he would one day grow up to be and made them stop several times of the way, and by the time they reached the ornate doors or Ra’s study it had been half an hour, Tim’s cheeks were red from holding in his laughter, and Ubu was ready to skin them both alive.
“The Young Master and his… pet, Demon’s Head,” Ubu announced as he opened the door for them and Tim could only tighten his hold on Damian’s hand as a warning before the two of them were ushered inside.
Ra’s was sitting behind his desk, as usual, a cup of steaming tea before him, aromatic as always, informing Tim it was the jasmine tea Damian preferred.
Obviously Ra’s wanted Damian to lower his guard so his reactions today were the most authentic, yet… was this a test for himself too? Was Ra’s waiting to see his reaction?
Ra’s calculating green eyes were set on a window, and his interactions with Tim were minimal at best, prefering to get reports of Damian’s studies from Dusan or Damian himself.
He closed his eyes, imagining his mother’s nails caressing the nape of his neck, her voice whispering cold air into his skin.
‘You never let your guard down before a snake, Timothy,’ she would have said. ‘Even the most disinterested enemy can easily be plotting your downfall.’
Oh, how me missed his paranoid mother right now, as he lowered his head in reference to Ra’s, making sure to visibly wince in pain and struggle to keep his balance.
Damian tensed by his side.
“My Own,” he hissed, worried.
“I’m fine, Young Master,” he said softly, without looking up.
“Take a sit, grandson, and your tutor as well, from what I can tell he shouldn’t be out of bed this soon,” Ra’s said airily, not even looking at them as he served two cups of tea.
Damian did something that made his nose wrinkle and his cheeks puff out but he said nothing as he carefully helped Tim sit on a cushion, covering his cold knees with a blanket before taking a seat himself by his side.
Ra’s watched them with dispassionate eyes, as if asesing their every move.
Most likely asesing their every move.
“It seems, grandson, that your … playmate has been keeping vital information from us,” The Demon’s Head said, sipping at his tea, eyes fixed on them.
Damian scowled, scoffing.
Tim’s eyes widened, his teeth sinking onto his lower lip in a pose of, what he hoped looked like utter confusion.
“Impossible, Grandfather,” Damian said with conviction, his hand tight around Tim’s, his shoulders squared, his back straight. “My Own would never hide anything from me.”
He was ready for a fight.
“Really?” Ra’s smiled, all teeth and poorly hidden disdain.
Clearly he was also looking for a fight.
Tim took a deep breath, or as deep as his protesting ribs allowed him.
“Sir?” he asked, his voice small, weakened.
Ra’s finally turned his cold eyes to him, his curiosity obvious.
“You told me you were a sickly child,” he began. “The son of an archeologist.”
Tim nodded, confused.
“I am,” he said carefully, unsure.
“Aha,” Ra’s said, an eyebrow rising. “The sickly child of an archeologist that could hold his own while protecting a child against Trigon’s demons.”
Damian’s eyes widened while Tim’s face started losing colour.
He hadn’t thought of that, at the time he had reacted on his own, only wanting to keep Damian safe.
“So, child,” Ra’s continued, his voice steady, unconcerned, as if discussing an interesting curiosity. “I will only ask one more time; who sent you to us?”
Tom swallowed thickly, unable to move. Had Ra’s seen him fight? Had he seen him and recognized his fighting style as Bruce’s.
No, he would be dead already if that was the case.
Or in the dungeon, at the very least.
If he or Talia suspected he was connected to The Batman they would have pulled Damian away from him by now.
And considering nor Talia nor Dusan were present, Ra’s either did not suspect a thing or thought him more dangerous than anticipated and was biding his time.
For what, though? Tim wasn’t sure.
“My Own?” Damian asked, his voice unsure, his eyes wide.
Tim swallowed once, twice, before shaking his head to clear it.
He hadn’t lied to either Ra’s or Damian yet, and maybe that was what intrigued the Demon’s Head so far.
His thumb reached to gently caress the back of Damian’s hand, his eyes set on his folded knees.
“No one sent me, Sir,” he said honestly. “It was a fortunate coincidence that Young Master Damian found me in the desert when he did, otherwise I would have died.”
Damian’s hand relaxed against his own.
Ra’s seemed unconvinced.
“Quite a fortunate coincidence, that one,” he said simply. “Who taught you how to defend yourself then?”
Tim thought about his answer, how to phrase the truth without having his words lead to Bruce or his other teachers? For all he knew Lady Shiva was still a member of the League of Shadows and it wouldn’t take much for her to tell Ra’s she didn’t know him to expose him as a liar.
“No one, Sir, not formally that is. I...” he settled for saying, carefully choosing his words “… I wanted to protect those dear to me so I…. observed those of talent and tried to learn from that.”
“Yet, you are still an orphan, are you not?” Ra’s asked, amusement flowing from him thickly.
Tim closed his eyes, swallowing the knot in his throat.
“And my failure will forever haunt me, Sir,” he admitted, a tear rolling down his cheek as he remembered the serene face of his mother in her casket, his father’s unfocused eyes on the kitchen floor.
“My Own...” Damian whispered sympathetically, his voice kind.
Tim finally decided to take a gamble, lifting his face to lock his eyes with Ra’s, but never letting his frame relax, oozing nervousness and determination with each movement.
“I am not a warrior, Sir, nor am I an assassin like those who you command,” he admitted honestly. “But I swear I would never, will never, represent a threat to the Young Master, I will lay down my life before him if the day ever comes I am a danger to him.”
Something seemed to shift in Ra’s eyes, something calculating, cold, almost mechanical.
“Is that your Oath, Jackson?” he asked, amused.
Tim nodded, completely sure.
“It is, Sir,” he swore. “I will never be a danger to Master Damian, I’d rather die before that.”
“Remember those words, Grandson,” he said, turning in his seat to stare at the window once more. “They will mark your actions one day.”
Damian nodded back, his pride in Tim evident.
“Of course, Grandfather, I have never, nor will I ever, doubt My Own’s devotion,” he said, wrinkling his nose as if the sole idea was distasteful to him. “Let us go and bathe My Own, and then we shall eat.”
Tim nodded, bowing to the Demon’s Head one more time.
He wasn’t sure why, but he felt something had changed that day, between the three of them. Something that would, one day, mean his salvation or destruction.
He only hoped he had acted correctly.
Chapter 15: Interlude: "Cohn".
“My own?” Damian called, peeking over the window where is Jackson was sitting in the roof, eyes sad and clear and lost in the stars above them.
The last few weeks were… distressing to Damian. Uncle Dussan sat with them one night and told them he had a mission to complete and would be away for a while - and Jack had nodded sadly and asked him to be careful while Damian himself had felt lost, a chaotic mixture of anger and cold emptiness he did not dare to examine should it consume him - and Jack's mood had grown somber and darker every time Damian's mother had asked him to train with her.
It was the loneliness, Damian could imagine, what was hurting his own so deeply. The days alone in their little apartments, preparing lessons he sometimes didn't get to teach and brewing tea neither uncle Dussan nor Damian himself were there to drink.
Every time he arrived in their rooms and his Jackson's smile was a little bit dimmer, a little bit smaller, Damian felt responsible, as a proper master he should be able to assuage His Own’s pain, to make sure when was well cared for and happy always.
He was a child and there was always something dark and incredibly sad behind Jackson's pale blue eyes. Secrets and shadows and a pain he, at five years of age, couldn't possibly understand.
So he kept his eyes set on Jackson's figure, wrapped his arms around him as if fearing that invisible weight that was slowly settling over his shoulders would take him away forever, and tried to will with all his might for his dearest Jackson to smile once more.
He really wished Uncle Dussan would hurry back and fix everything.
It all culminated in that particular day, when Damian had proudly displayed his worksheet for Jackson to grade, and the pride that always signalled Damian had done a good job had lit Jackson's eyes before his lips moved silently, his fingers curling over the top of the page.
“February… 16th…” he whispered, as if slowly submerging into a dream from which Damian could not pull him back. “Is that… the date?”
Damian had nodded, wary.
“It is….” he replied.
Jackson had not uttered another word, had kept his smile sweet and loving, but the light had disappeared from his eyes, his shoulders slumped and heavy with a sort of sorrow the child could not understand.
They had continued their day as usual with lessons and warmth and their customary time in the patio, with Jackson reading another adventure of the Grey Ghost to him before his mother had arrived to take him to a silent dinner with cold eyes watching his every move and his grandfather's questioning every lesson Jackson had imparted that day.
And now he was back, well over midnight, and Jackson was not in his customary bed, nor was he preparing for the next day's lessons. He was outside, on the roof, hugging his knees and watching the stars as if they held the answer to every single question yet unanswered.
Damian couldn't stand it anymore.
He climbed over the windowsill, chubby fingers grabbing onto the wall with all his might as he made his way towards his own, determinately pushing himself against His Own’s side and taking him back from the sky and the stars and the night that had been trying to steal him away.
“Young master!” Jackson said, shocked.
“Don't be lost in the night, my Jack,” the child pleaded. “Don't let the stars pull you away from me?”
His own had looked at him then with heartbreak and agony in his pale blue eyes. As if Damian had asked for an impossible, as if he was asking something cruel out of his playmate.
Then those eyes colored like the moon lowered to his knobby knees as if Jack needed to center himself, hide something inside himself from Damian - impossible, Jack never lied, he had no need to hide anything from him - before he once more raised his face, this time with a melancholic smile curling his lips.
“I'm sorry, Young Master,” he apologized. “ It's not the stars that have me as such…”
“ Then what is it?” He asked.
“I had a friend… a long time ago,” Jack explained. “ The best friend one could ever ask for. The one person in this whole world who knew everything there was to know about me.”
Damian scowled deepened, something cold and scolding hot curling inside his chest, forcing his hands to tighten against Jack's shirt.
He bit his lip.
“What… what happened to your friend?” he asked, hesitant and not sure why.
His Own’s eyes grew dim, sad.
“He’s… far away, in a place I cannot reach him,” he said, softly. “Today is his birthday, today he… sees the sky for the very first time, we used to celebrate every year.”
Damian frowned at his Jackson's particular use of the tense. Something out of character for someone as articulate as his sometimes tutor.
He ardently missed Uncle Dussan at moments such as these.
He often knew exactly what to say to pull His Own from his melancholy, to force one of those small smiles from his lips and make his pale eyes light up with fondness.
Damian didn’t understand the concept of having a friend and then not having them. He understood family, servants, tutors, and His Own.
Was his Jackson a friend?
From what he had read, friends where almost like brothers, like The Grey Ghost and the Scarlet Pimpernel were friends.
Friends supported eachother, trusted eachother, shared everything.
More than a brother, the Grey Ghost had written.
More than blood.
With a determined nod, Damian realized Jackson was that for him.
More than a brother, or what he sometimes imagined a brother would be like.
Their bond stronger than that of blood.
They trusted eachother, they shared everything.
Jackson supported Damian.
Jackson, then, was his friend.
His only friend.
And as such, he had to support him.
He tried to imagine having a friend like His Own, having that bond the two of them shared, and then Jackson going somewhere Damian could not follow and the horror creeping into the pit of his stomach and slowly making its way down his spine almost froze him in place. He couldn’t imagine a life without Jackson, having to wake up every day - having to function - knowing he would never feel his hands caressing his hair, hear his whisper of a voice reading to him after lunch.
Without Jackson’s soft smile directed at him.
He shook his head, tightening his hold of his Jackson.
The older boy wrapped his arms around him, his slender fingers instantly reaching for his short hair, gentle, sweet.
“I’m sorry, Young Master,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I will be alright.”
Damian shook his head.
He didn’t need His Own’s coddling.
He was the one being supportive here!
“Let’s celebrate,” he said suddenly.
Jackson looked at him, confused.
“Celebrate?” he asked.
“Your friend’s birthday,” he said, his fingers tightening against Jack’s shirt. “Let’s celebrate for him. Let’s make sure you feel him as close as possible.”
Jack stared at him in surprise, something indescribably sad passed over his face, twisting it with pain, his fingers curled gently against Damian’s cheek, examining him, searching for something in his face.
“That… would be lovely,” he said finally, standing.
Damian nodded, pride making his skin color lightly, his chest swell.
That morning, as the sun rose and Jackson fell asleep by his side with a tender smile on his face, his whole body relaxed for once, Damian grabbed one of his pens and a notebook.
‘Uncle Dussan,’ he wrote feeling the exhaustion pull at his arms. ‘Tonight we danced in the sand and sang songs that Jackson calls classic rock and we drank juice in honor of a friend long gone of his. We wished ‘Cohn’ a happy birthday and Jackson laughed and was truly free for a few hours. He was beautiful.’
His smile grew dim, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip.
‘Please come back soon, so you can see it as well. We will dance, all three of us.’
With a heavy sigh, he hid his notes, making sure no one, not Jackson, nor Grandfather or Mother could ever find them - they were for Uncle Dussan, so he would not miss a moment of what they had done in his absence, so he would feel right there with them when he returned - and slowly curled his body besides Jackson’s, his muscles relaxing when the older boy - his friend, his best friend, his first friend, his only friend - wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close.
Finally, feeling accomplished, Damian slept.
Chapter 16: Interlude: Drake
Damian hadn’t moved.
No, Damian refused to be moved.
He knew his father worried, Richard, Cain and even Todd worried for him and his unmoving state, for his deteriorating psyche, but how was his supposed to move now, after all he had witnessed?
After being distracted only for a moment, only to be pushed to the side by Drake of all people, pushed him away from the falling debris of the building both of them had been standing in just a few seconds before.
“DRAKE!” Damian had snarled, shocked, already turning to retaliate the violence upon his person when the full cracking that had accompanied them for an hour had turned into a deafening roar of metal and concrete and glass and the dust that had suddenly enveloped him had forced his eyes closed.
The push Drake had given him had sent his smaller body - not that much smaller than Drake, he soothed his bruised ego - into a metal nook of some sort, away from most of the debris that was raining over them viciously.
The building had collapsed over them.
Drake had saved him.
A few seconds that seemed to stretch into an eternity later, Damian was able to reach for a flashlight, searching now around the still floating dust and the eerie silence.
“Drake?” he hissed, doing his best not to cough. “Drake, where are you?”
Everything was so dark, the dust was coating his face, clinging to his parched lips.
A glint of metal reflecting a patch of red seemed to finally appear as everything settled.
Damian gasped in horror, his hand instinctively reaching for his emergency beacon.
Because his flashlight finally revealed, millimeters from the spot he had been standing on just a moment ago, the still figure of the Red Robin himself. Back arched, chest bloodied, a foot crushed under the weight of a massive concrete piece, definitely broken, two steel rods that had most likely held the walls at one point had shattered and were stabbing the young man, holding him in mid air, going through his shoulder and stomach and then burying themselves into the ground, reminiscent of a pin on a butterfly.
One of Drake's pale blue eyes slowly rolled towards him, weakly observing him from head to toe, as if assuring himself of his well-being, until he finally closed his eyes with a sigh so soft it seemed to be completely devoid of sound.
It had clicked on Damian’s mind.
Drake had saved his life.
Drake had pushed him away to save his life.
Drake was no dying in his place.
Had Damian remained where he had been standing, one of the steel rods would have pierced his skull.
“Dnt… mov…” Drake whispered,barely an exhalation from his split lip. “Don't… move dam… ian… “
“What do you mean with don't move, you imbecile!?” the younger teen had roared. “Someone needs to save your sorry excuse for a life!”
“The floor… unstable… brat…” Drake hissed back, not even looking at him.
There was a sort of soft peacefulness on his face, his eyes slowly dulling despite the agony Damian knew he must have been feeling. The younger teen started to panic, he had never thought he would watch this, despite his childhood dreams and his training. The ways of the league and all he had lived through, all he demanded and huffed… when push came to shove he had to face the fact that he wasn't ready.
He was not ready to watch Drake die, much less for him.
He had known his father and Grayson would be looking for them, he had known they would be able to save him, granted he did not move.
But Drake did not have that time.
Anguish, guilt and fear had coiled inside of him in a suffocating mix that had squashed his pride, especially when Drake's eyes slowly lost focus and his lips moved silently forming words Damian could not, would not make out, his muscled had released their tension in the darkness and Robin had not been able to stand it.
“C… clone!” he had whimpered, his voice breaking. “Clone, Superboy, please! I know you can hear me!”
Hands clenching, dust coating his lungs and tears rolling down his cheeks, Damian had lost.all reservation and started shrieking for the one person he had known could give Drake a fighting chance.
“I know you don't like me, but Drake needs you! He's dying! Please!” He had pleaded, over and over. “Please! We are here! Please!”
The stillness of their underground prison had been broken by the snapping of a sonic boom in the air, cracking and snapping of concrete over his head deafening him as he trembled, and the sudden blinding of a beam of light suddenly forcing him to cover his eyes marked the next five eternal, unending minutes, marked by the relief of that hated clone's voice yelling for his loathsome companions and Damian felt relief spreading inside of him like warm water.
When he had been able to open his eyes again the clone was there, carefully pulling Drake's limp body in his arms, eyes frantic with worry and such devastation Damian wasn't sure reflected on his own.
“Cassie is coming for you, don’t move,” the clone had hissed, not taking his eyes from Drake’s slowly shifting eyelids, before flying away so fast Damian had not been able to see him move.
Just as the clone had promised, Wonder Girl had rescued him and soon afterwards he had learned that Drake had been taken to surgery, his lung had collapsed, they told him, his liver had ruptured, the list of broken bones was staggering.
There was barely any brain activity left to be detected.
That had been eight months to the day.
Drake’s bones had mended, Drake’s internal organs had healed.
He had not awoken ever since.
And now there he was, sitting by Drake’s bedside at the Manor, where he had remained faithfully ever since. He patrolled and did his duty, of course, he had a mission to fulfil, but as soon as he rested enough he was back in the little room with the wide windows that Pennyworth made sure always smelt of flowers, soft music always in the background, fresh linens covering the bed every single week.
Damian was seldom alone in his vigil.
Sometimes Grayson accompanied him, talking and joking with a voice that grew fainter and broken with each passing month.
Sometimes his father would sit by Damian’s side, holding Drake’s pale - now paler, smaller, skinnier - hand in his own, his calloused thumb caressing his skin as he whispered to him.
Sometimes Damian returned from patrol to find Todd sitting on his customary chair, reading book after book outloud, his deep baritone voice never wavering, his focus never wandering from the pages.
Sometimes the Titans came and they all had different reactions.
Allen tried to laugh and be as cheerful and as sunny as inhumanly possible, despite his laughter ringing hollow and tired.
Sandsmark always laid a hand on Drake’s forehead, she liked to sing sometimes, others she stayed there in silence, tears running down her cheeks, voice whisper soft as she told Drake how much they missed him, how much he was needed, how empty the world was without him there.
The Clone himself came more than any other, and he did not sit by Drake’s bedside, no, he shamelessly laid by Drake’s side on the bed, cuddling the body of his best friend against his own, muttering how cold ‘The Timster’ was, how skinny and girly he was getting, how ashamed he would be once he woke up and saw he had lost his pathetic muscles.
Damian had instantly started researching, and now daily made sure to stretch Drake’s legs and arms, to move them, exercise them. He sometimes dragged Cain by the hand to help him with Drake’s back and torso - she never approached on her own, despite how obvious it was she wanted to. Father said she was frightened by the concept of Drake’s fragility, of the thought he could die at any moment - to make sure each and every muscle on Drake’s body received proper stimuli and thus, when Drake woke up - because he would wake up, he
to - he would be spared months of physical therapy and recovery.
It would be like waking up from a prolonged nap for him.
Damian would make sure of that.
Todd was the first one to stop coming.
Damian couldn’t blame him, not really.
His relationship with Drake had never been as strong as with the others, their past was full of confrontation, of things said in anger and cold looks in response, of aborted movements for reconciliation that were never meant to be, of a potential that the rest of Damian’s family could see clear as the summer sky, but never fulfilled.
It still stung Damian deep inside of himself, it set something bitter in the back of his mouth whenever he heard Todd’s deep voice over the comms, making excuses and rambling off locations that he was heading to.
‘Drake wouldn’t have given up on you,’ he had wanted to tell him. ‘Drake would have never given up on you’.
Sandsmark was the second.
A short, whispered: “I can’t do this…” from her trembling lips as she laid a kiss upon Drake’s unmoving forehead was all the warning the family had gotten before she left the Manor, never to return.
Allen and the clone still came whenever their duties allowed it, but Allen’s eyes were growing dim, the clone’s posture had an edge of tension that hadn’t been there before.
Allen spent the following month telling Drake that ‘Cassie’ was not purposefully being cruel, but she was hurt, she didn’t know how to deal and that he was sure Drake would understand, he always did.
The clone, on the other hand, would hiss in anger whenever Sandsmark was mentioned, and it was clear to Damian he was angry at her apparent lack of faith.
Damian was satisfied.
His own bitterness did not receed, but now that he saw it mirrored in one of the people who had truly loved Drake more than others might have imagined, it felt justified.
The clone’s presence in Drake’s little sanctuary was not as unwelcome as before.
Father still sat for an hour by Damian’s side, his eyes never leaving Drake’s tranquil face, his hand tight against Drake’s own.
He always ended his visits with a whispered: “I love you” that sounded more like regret than anything else to Damian’s ears, but the teen knew it wasn’t his place to offer any comfort to his father.
The betrayal that hurt Damian the most was then Grayson told them all he was going to station himself in San Francisco for a while.
“Without Tim there, the Titans will need the help,” he had said and while his face still retained its usual pinched, worried veneer, his whole body projected his relief like a light show, signaling to his true intentions.
He was abandoning Drake as well.
Like Todd, like Sandsmark…
He left with a sad smile directed at Father, a soft pat of Pennyworth’s shoulder and a slight hair ruffle to Damian himself, yet he never turned to Drake’s room, his back always to the now silent member of their family.
Damian had locked himself up in his bedroom to rant, rave and scream his fury without compromising the integrity of the Manor, he destroyed a chair and a framed photograph of the former acrobat that had once sat on his father’s desk. He cursed their names in each and every language he knew and pleaded for their misfortune to all the gods of all. They were weak, all of them. Weak and selfish and not worthy of the love Drake had bestowed upon them.
After an hour of rage and violence, Damian fell to his knees by his bed, his hand searching under it for his old travel bag, the one he had kept ever since the day he came to live with his father, full of the things he could never - would never - refuse to part with should he be forced to make a quick escape.
Amongst the battered yellow R of his first Robin uniform and a picture of his father and Pennyworth in the kitchen table at breakfast he refused anyone else to know about he found it.
Still green and warped and small like a pea, time unable to steal its sheen from the burnt plastic. The Green Lantern insignia gone yet still slightly visible if only because once Damian had been told it had been there at some point.
The last memento of a mother’s dedication and love.
Memories of a child that had been left behind by a world that did not love him with the same intensity as he loved back.
With it in his hands and the comfort it still brought him, despite how many years it had been already, and with six months of silence and tension and guilt accumulating into his very being, Damian allowed himself to cry.
He cried violent sobs that left his ribs aching, his lips parched and his face tight. He cried for all things gone and those that would never be.
He cried for the teenager battling for his life and he cried because that life had been give up selflessly, thoughtlessly, without a hint of hesitation, to save Damian’s own.
He cried because he knew, deep down, he was not worthy of such sacrifice.
He cried until the sun went down and his limbs grew tired and his breathing came in soft, wet hiccups. Until his own weight forced him to his side and his head rested on the carpeted floor, his fingers shaking from the strain of holding his treasure so tightly.
Silence finally enveloped his bedroom, interrupted by his shuddering breaths that did little to disrupt the stillness of the evening.
His tired, red eyes, suddenly landed on more of the content of his getaway bag and a new surge of embittered determination slowly returned strength to his tremulous muscles.
His aching left hand reached for it as the idea formed in his mind.
He didn’t need Todd’s constant vigilance or Sandsmark’s whimpering songs.
He didn’t need Grayson’s sweet-laced lies and empty comforts.
He would be there for Drake in all the ways they were not and it would be enough, he would make it enough. He would provide the soft songs and the daily updates of the state of the family now, he would be the one to stimulate Drake’s mind as he had been stimulating his body.
Yes, he wasn’t worthy of Drake’s sacrifice, but he would make himself someone deserving of such muted, stoic, affection.
He stood from the floor with new determination strong in his eyes, he dashed from his room to Drake’s - it had been hours and Damian knew that, even in his slumber, Drake would wonder where everyone was by now, would feel lonely - ready to take upon himself the tasks of those that had left Drake behind.
His battered, water-damaged yet oh, so precious copy of “The Grey Ghost and the Jade Dragon” held against his chest like a shield, Jack’s old Green Lantern pajama button still tight in his fist, filling him with the warmth the child had provided for him until his death.
He would not let another loved one die.