It had rained that morning, and now the lawn of Wayne Manor was matted down and wet, the scent of moist dirt soaking through the walls. It made Damian curl his nose - it was a scent he encountered only after moving to Gotham, and left him with a lingering homesickness deep in his gut.
“This is ridiculous,” Damian grumbled, pencil lead scratching deep ‘x’s into his sketchpad. He was seated at the breakfast table, Pennyworth steadfastly mending one of Bruce’s starch collared shirts across from him. Outside, the sky was dark, the city lights far from the hill the manor perched its watch on. Just beyond the breakfast table, the back screen door overlooked the barren garden, where the brick pond beneath the bridge had filled with rainwater. “The Joker is walking free in this wretched city, and here I am being wasted away.”
Pennyworth hummed but said no more. Even Titus at his feet, hidden beneath the table cloth, seemed more subdued that night, not even bothering to nip at Damian’s socks.
“Father is putting the lives of innocent people at risk just because he thinks he can ground me like a child,” Damian continued. “How can he not see the error of his ways?”
“Are you not indeed a child, Master Damian?” Pennyworth inquired, eyes not lifting from his stitching. Damian scowled.
“-Tt- A child is something incompetent and naive, neither of which I am nor have I ever been,” Damian stated confidently, squaring his shoulders proudly. At this, Pennyworth did look up, only to give Damian a weary twitch of his lips before sighing and returning to his needlework.
It was near two o’clock when the first of the bats returned. By then, Pennyworth had shooed Damian off to bed, though Damian lied awake feeling too hot beneath the covers, unused to sleeping so early.
“I don’t know why I follow your stupid ass around, cause it seems all you care about is throwing me on mine!”
“Well guess what? No one is telling you to! Walk the hell out of here like you always do! See if I care!”
It was Grayson and Todd, fighting again.
“You say that now, but give it a day, cause you’re gonna be crawling back with that stupid face of yours, saying ‘oh Jason, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to shoo you away. Come back to the manor, everyone misses you, I miss you-”
“Well excuse me for trying! You should be glad I even give a damn after all these stunts you pull again and again!”
There was a lull of quiet where Damian presumed Pennyworth must have interfered. He clutched the covers a bit closer to his chest, the cloth annealing to his sweaty palms. The silence continued for what felt like several minutes before there was a slam of a door, followed by angry footsteps up the stairs. He heard it pass his room, the footsteps cutting long shadows into the block of light beneath his door. Grayson - almost definitely Grayson - paused somewhere down the hall, sighing, before opening and closing a door behind him. Downstairs, the floors creaked lightly as Pennyworth disappeared back into the nooks of the manor, flipping the lights out after him.
The silence was deafening, causing a high trill to ring in Damian’s ears. He couldn’t stand it.
After rolling over one more time before rolling back, Damian threw back the covers and sunk his bare feet into the thick carpet. He snatched his sketchbook on the nightstand and grabbed a pencil from his desk.
Outside, the manor was dark. Most of the windows were closed, mainly because there were too many and it became a hassle to open and close them each day. There was also the matter of his father, who preferred to be as unseen as possible. Though Damian shared many likes with his father, this was not one of them. The greenery outside the manor was a gentle kind of beautiful, one hardly found deeper in Gotham where Damian spent most of his nights. The beauty inside Gotham was a perverse and industrial one, made for those who preferred the art of decay.
Damian stalked down the hall in his bare feet, pausing before Grayson’s room, fingers twitching to twist the knob. It was possible Grayson was already asleep. The man was the kind who could fall asleep instantly, torrid imagination shut off with a click. Or at least Damian thought. There were also times deep in the night, on the occasion Grayson slept over, that Damian made out light noises from the other room, almost like a wiry scratching, or perhaps something akin to pages fluttering in the wind.
In the moment, there was silence, and Damian willed his hands to still as he tiptoed past the door and down the stairwell, thinking perhaps he could sketch the ballroom ceiling.
It was past the kitchen that Damian felt his eyes pulled towards the back hall. It was a dusty hall, one Damian rarely ventured, bordering the edges of the ballroom and lined with old drawing rooms. In the occasion of a gala, it was where the Wayne children would escape to avoid the heat of the room, though not for long. Though they found the quiet comforting, the thick wall muffling the vivacious conversation so the party sounded nearly underwater, there was an unsettling presence to the shadows, almost as if it was thrumming with the busy noise of a dark photograph - tangible and crepuscular.
As if pulled by a string tied to his gut, Damian crept into the hall, the air getting cooler the further he went.
Fragile chandeliers clung to the ceiling, too high to dust the cobwebs gathered between the steel crafted bars. Faint in the air was a stale odor with a musty undertone - almost tangy, sour, possibly metallic - that seemed to emanate from the very walls. Perhaps it was because of the shadows, but the walls seemed to swallow him in onto the bed of its tongue that was the plum carpet. Behind him, the hall opening had become a dark block. Shivering, Damian was ready to leave when he caught sight of a drawing room deep in the hall, its heavy door propped open a crack.
Curious, Damian edged closer until the door towered over him. Lightly gripping the knob, he eased the door open, hands fumbling for the lightswitch only to find cloth covered furniture. Disappointed, Damian stepped into the room, crossing his arms. He flippantly peeked under the cloths, finding futons and ornately carved mahogany tables. They stood like badly shaped ghosts, reminding him of Grayson’s patchy Halloween costume the year before.
Against the peeling wallpaper was a tall dresser - the tallest piece of furniture in the room - empty and smelling of mothballs. There was an admirable carving of a woman on its doors, one that had Damian itching for his pencil. It was as he bent closer, lowering himself down on his knees to inspect the carving, that he found the neat crack on the wall behind it.
It was nearly perfectly covered, save for the bottom, exposed between the legs of the dresser. It ran too neat to be unintentional, and upon further inspection, it appeared to be a door - a small, rectangular door hidden in the wall.
Pushing aside the dresser, Damian ran his fingertips along the edges, sketchbook long forgotten on the floor. Chips of sawdust and wallpaper clung to his skin as he slowly pried open the door, the plank of wood swinging open to reveal -
- a plaster wall.
Frowning, Damian knocked his knuckles against it, finding it hollow. He supposed it could have been an old vent shaft, blocked off due to mice or rats sneaking in from the garden. It looked way before his time, possibly installed back when his grandparents ruled the house, or maybe even before. Disappointed, Damian let the door swing back shut before dusting off his hands and getting back on his feet. Snatching up his sketchbook, he left the small drawing room, shutting off the lights and closing the door behind him, though not pushing back the dresser, leaving the door exposed to the open air.