Gotham turned out different from what he'd expected. So did father.
Except, he didn’t rightly know what to expect of the man to begin with. Mother had spun a tale of his sire being a great man, strong and skilled. A Beloved who could rule the world by her side if he’d ever wished to shed his strange, stagnating morality.
Grandfather painted an image of the Detective he respected as a man of quality and intelligence, a worthy opponent and a possibly priceless ally.
Umm’i had… Umm’i never spoke of Bruce Wayne. His only advice came late, once Damian made up his mind about going to meet his sire.
(“Don’t expect too much,” the omega had said. It was Damian’s last night spent in the safety of the familiar nest, the last night of comfort in the familiar embrace. “You will only end up disappointed. He’s only a man, ‘bibi.”)
And, in some strange way, they were all right.
As a man, father was imposing and strong, and knew how to use both these qualities to make himself intimidating. The silence was his weapon of choice, teamed up with unrelenting intensity, both enough to have hardened criminals shake in their boots.
As Batman, he was awe-inspiring, having conditioned the whole city to fear his very shadow – the sole suspicion of his presence was enough to send packs of goons scrambling for cover. Damian was impressed more than he’d like to admit – none of his masters and teachers had such presence and charisma, close enough to rival mother’s and grandfather’s. Damian could see where mother’s admiration came from, these were all traits she would find attractive.
As an alpha, he was a tough and decisive one, didn’t stand for any opposition. He was the leader of his pack and his word was final. No wonder grandfather thought so highly of him.
Problems started when the cape came off.
As a parent, Bruce Wayne was… immensely awkward. It would seem that he only ever knew how to behave from behind the safety of a mask – either being the unmoved Batman or the suave, amicable, empty-headed Brucie Wayne, a vapid heir to Gotham’s empire and an adoption addict. Out in the open, the alpha was emotionally closed off and clumsy, unprepared to deal with anything that couldn’t be safely outpaced and left behind the door of his office, in the butler’s capable hands to be dealt with.
Just as Damian was left in Pennyworth’s care as soon as it could be reasonably arranged.
“Do not fret, Young Sir, Master Bruce only needs to brood over the situation for a time. I’m afraid to say it’s a hereditary trait that, hopefully, you’ll be spared form.”
Umm’i was right, Pennyworth was running the clan and Bruce Wayne was disappointing.
Well, at the very least they’ve waited with leaving him alone with the help for after the DNA test results came through. Otherwise, he’d be disappointed in a completely different way.
(“Don’t expect to be greeted with open arms. He doesn’t trust anyone. That’s why you have to get the rest on your side ASAP.”)
The rest of the household was also different from what he expected.
The Wayne pack was eclectic and chaotic, and not all what Damian was used to. They were all skilled to a degree, but not even close to being rounded in a way that would have Damian trust them. The amount of training they’ve had was dismal and whatever individual skills they did have were ridiculously limited.
Grayson was the closest one to a respectable ally and a potentially dangerous enemy, with being at this game for the longest time, with his natural skill enhanced by experience. That is, he would be, if the stopped being a condescending asshole only because he perceived Damian to be nothing more than a child.
”Dami! Who taught you such foul language!”
“Not your business, Grayson!”
“Indeed, a manner of speech most unsuitable for a young gentleman.”
Maybe it was, but he wasn’t sorry when it reminded him of Jason. Umm’i was very careful about teaching him the intrinsic conversational value of a well placed ‘fuck’, no matter how many times grandfather scolded them for it.
Paradoxically, it seemed to appeal to his father in some way – as much as he frowned and put his nose up, there was that way the corner of his lips ticked up in a shadow of a smile, and Damian had to bite his lips so the question that burned in his throat wouldn’t escape. “Does it remind you of something?” He wanted to know. “Of someone? None of your other sons would ever be so crude, there was only one…”
But no, there was no reason to turn father against him even more and break the fragile truce they’ve established during the first two months of acquaintance. No reason to raise that ghost.
The Manor was already full of ghosts, as it was.
Damian, of course, knew of the omega’s past, he did his research. He knew of the second Robin, of his beginning and his end, it wasn’t a secret in the clan. But all he knew were accounts and documents, and grandfather’s words - all of it cold and removed; Jason didn’t talk about his past, ever. The subject only came up when the madness was rearing its ugly head, tinting his pretty turquoise eyes green, making him erratic and violent. The past and madness seemed connected like that – one causing the other in a vicious circle of pain and anger. Damian had learned very early on to avoid certain subjects when speaking to his omega caretaker.
But now, that he lived in the place where it has all started, he had access to information and first-hand accounts he’d never dreamed of before. But at the same time, gaining any kind of insight about the second Robin was like trying to squeeze water from a stone.
There was a room on the first floor with the door locked tightly and curtains drawn. A glass case in the Cave (something of a tasteless joke, that he will have to remove when he finally takes over and summons umm’i to his side.) A few photographs hanging in the rooms father never went into that portrayed a reedy, underweight teen with curly hair and a charming smirk. Conversations that were cut short suddenly and mercilessly whenever Damian tried to steer them into the desired direction.
The ghost of a murdered boy that no one spoke about hung over the family like a heavy shroud of pained silence. It was obvious that Jason Todd was still mourned, even a decade after his death.
So why, Damian could not understand, he hasn’t been avenged by his clan? Why it was him that had to take up the blade, track the murderer like a diseased beast and put him down like a rabid animal that he was?
That kept him questioning the people around him. Grayson, he could understand, he was soft in an absolutely ridiculous way and Drake was a flake and had a very little spine when it came to these things. Gordon was a daughter of a Commissioner and not a part of the pack... but father?
Father was an alpha, a hunter. A clan leader. How could he allow one of his to be taken from him like that? How could he not punish the one responsible for it?
It kept Damian distrustful - and that distrust was noticed and reflected back at him, even if unconsciously. He wasn’t a part of the clan; it didn't seem like the clan wanted to have much to do with him at all, apart from the familial responsibility of not leaving a kit stranded in a strange country. Either that or the need to keep an eye on him while he was in America, in case his mother had some dastardly scheme planned to go off at a moment's notice.
Well, it seemed that three months in, Damian was forced to employ his secret weapon.
(“You’ll go to Alfred and ask him if you can help with cooking.”
“I will not be working in the kitchen! How is that even going to help me with gaining the upper hand over Grayson?”
“You will ask him nicely if he can make green bean casserole and then offer to help him make it. Do it for me, ‘bibi, this once. At worst you’ll get some good food out of it at best… you will see. Start with Alfred, he’s the hardest one to impress.”)
Pennyworth, indeed, was hard to impress and didn't warm up to him considerably after the shared cooking experience, thought the dish they’ve concocted was delightful. It seemed to perplex the butler more than anything that Damian would suddenly show interest in menial tasks such as cooking and he didn't think much of his master's son dirtying his hands in the kitchen. Well, they were both on the same page, then.
Not that Damian had no idea about cooking - umm’i went through considerable trouble to teach him how to feed himself in a pinch. It was just not something he liked to be known.
So no, Pennyworth didn't warm up to him right away… not until the night a couple weeks later, when he caught Damian in the kitchen preparing a cup of hot cocoa.
“You should have called, Young Master.” The man said from the doorway, clad in a house-robe and slippers, and completely unimpressed with the fork that was sticking out of the doorframe an inch from his left ear.
Damian felt a bit bad about it, property damage was usually punished in his home.
“There was no need.” He did his best to keep his composure. It was heard while standing on a stool because he was too short to have a proper line of sight into the pot of milk warming up on the stove. “I can accomplish the task myself.”
He wondered if the man was strong enough to survive being knocked out with no complications. Old people were frail and umm’i would be absolutely furious if he permanently damaged Pennyworth only because he wanted to keep his nightly activities a secret.
“Regardless, my butler senses won't stop tingling, keeping me awake. Please let me help.”
Of course, he was watched and policed. At the least, they’ve cared that he didn't poison their food stores…
Strangely, that thought didn't make him feel better. I made him feel even worse on the night he already felt quite bad. It was the fourth month into his new living situation and the house didn’t stop feeling cold and lonely even for a moment.
Father sent him to school, because all children of his age were expected to attend one in America. Gotham Academy was supposed to be an institution of high quality, but in reality, it was a boring, strange place that did little to challenge him and his intelligence. Full of soft, daft nobodies, the Gotham’s supposed future elite and teachers that recited their scant knowledge by memory from outdated and in some cases downright incorrect sources.
It was even more of a struggle to have to pretend that he's getting along with these dullards because his cover had to be perfect and it would do him no favours to raise suspicions. His first language wasn’t English and, yes, he still had a bit of an accent left over, but that was not a reason for anyone to assume that he was slow and try to speak to him in capital letters. Back at home, he’d be perfectly justified in slapping any imbecile who had tried to talk down to him - in Gotham he was forced to sit through an exceptionally tiresome monologue from the principal and then to lower himself by apologising to the idiot who had started it all.
Well, at least now they will think twice before trying to get on his bad side.
He wished Jason could hear about it, he would surely approve.
But umm’i hasn't contacted him yet. Not even a message...
“How would you like your hot cocoa, young master?”
“With honey, if you please.”
The old man’s hands stilled, long enough for Damian to notice the slight tremor that ran through them when the movement restarted.
“Would you prefer some whipped cream on top?”
It was a rare treat, something he was only ever allowed to partake in secretly. It was a comfort thing, as Jason called it, and even if Damian wanted to protest the need to be comforted, he couldn't argue the truth of it. It did bring him comfort; the warmth of the porcelain between his palms, it reminded him of the peaceful times when he was sitting in Jason's lap, listening to his strong heartbeat, his scent mixing with the scent of cocoa and hot milk, the sweetness doubled, as a strong hand gently brushed through Damian’s hair.
“If you don’t mind me saying,” Pennyworth pulled him out of the memory. He was already done with washing the pot and putting the ingredients away. “Honey isn’t a very popular addition to hot cocoa.”
“I don't eat refined sugars,” Damian answered, because that was expected of him. Then he added, because umm’i would like him to. “And it’s… someone dear to me likes it this way.”
(“Once you’re allowed to have all the food you can eat, you start experimenting with everything that falls in your hands, ‘bibi, until you find combinations that just fit. It doesn't have to make sense if it’s tasty.”)
“Hm, isn’t it strange how small the world is.” The butler mused on the way out. “Someone very dear to me had also liked it exactly the same way.”
The old man’s eyes were clouded and wistful, and Damian bit his lips to keep it to himself that they were both most probably speaking of the same person. He nodded his thanks and, gripping the mug in both hands, returned back to his bedroom.
Next day, Pennyworth casually asked him what he’d like to have for dessert, as his sugar policy was never previously taken into account. Later, together they went through the available recipe books, trying to find recipes that would accommodate Damian’s various nutritional requirements - he was not only a growing boy and a vegetarian, but also allergic to strawberries and shellfish, which was simply unfair - before compiling a list of possible meal combinations that would work for him alongside the rest of the household.
“To think that there was once a boy in this house who would eat whatever I put in front of him,” Pennyworth said at the end. “How the times change.”
The statement was accompanied by a put-upon sigh, but there was a smile on the butler’s face.
Grayson wasn’t hard to impress; for one so experienced he was shockingly naive or at least tried to create the illusion of being so - it could have various uses in the field, to make an opponent believe they’re dealing with someone incompetent. Grayson could just project an image to deceive others and thus stay on top of the clan hierarchy… except, before exposing his existence to his father, Damian had spent over a month stalking and observing various members of the family in their most vulnerable moments and, well…
He’d seen Grayson in so many compromising situations (putting food too hot for consumption into his mouth was a repeated mistake that, while hilarious to watch, gave Damian an acute sense of second-hand embarrassment) that for a time he believed he’d been spotted and played with. But no, Richard didn't know of his presence. Out of costume, he was just a clumsy man with little to no spatial awareness.
“You shouldn't assume malice when stupidity will suffice.” Grandfather had advised him once and Damian was seeing the wisdom of these words in the flesh. Grayson was like a child trapped in a grown-up’s body, but there was no malicious bone in it whatsoever. "But strive to remember that one isn't necessarily better than the other."
Grayson was also dead set on playing the part of a good Older Brother, regardless of Damian’s will to participate in that farce.
“Hey, little D, want to watch Lilo and Stitch with me?”
Whenever Damian questioned the forms of entertainment available in the Manor, Richard usually looked at him in that sad way, that said his heart bleeds with sympathy for all the imagined wrongs the boy in front of him had unfairly suffered in his short life. It was supremely annoying and Damian wished he didn't have to deal with it, but umm’i made it very clear that the way to acceptance in the Wayne clan and its subsidiaries led through the heart of this hapless idiot. Hence, instead of trying to discourage Richard from interrupting him with a clear show of superior wit, Damian put down the book he was reading and gave his undivided attention to the bothersome man and the flat plastic case he held in his hands like an offering.
“It’s a movie, one the last greats of 2D animation,” Grayson said with enthusiasm as if he expected these words to make sense to Damian. “You’ll love it.”
“Ah, so this is a… cartoon?” Damian hedged, inspecting the case.
“Yeah, little D, it’s a cartoon. So, wanna watch it with me?”
He looked so hopeful, like a puppy eager to be petted. Damian still wasn’t sure how a man of twenty-seven could adopt such a childish countenance with such ease, but there it was. Not like he hasn’t been warned about it beforehand.
“Very well.” He made sure to mark the page in the book correctly and put it back on the shelf. “Since you seem to be in need of adult supervision, I'll have to do.”
The hand that dropped on his head to ruffle his hair was always telegraphed and yet somehow utterly unavoidable. “Thanks, little D, now I feel safer, knowing there’s someone to hug me when a scary monster appears.”
“You’re a disgrace.”
They made their way to the ground floor sitting room, the one set up for the movie nights the clan had often partaken in - the one with the flat screen TV hooked up to a variety of media and a monstrously large sofa in front of it. Thus far, Damian avoided these ‘movie nights’ like a plague, uncomfortable with the idea of bonding with the clan while flashing images and loud noises played in the background, distracting him. He wasn’t very fond of the mess the Bats created around them - paper wrappers and broken snacks dirtying the cushions, empty cans of fizzy drinks rolling underfoot, spills and crumbs all over the place. The odour of burnt popcorn was also decidedly unpleasant - almost as much as the mish-mash of alpha scents mixed into it and the constant, unceasing, inane chatter of all involved. One would think that they’d focus on the movie, but no.
It took Damian less than ten minutes to come to the conclusion that the whole ‘movie night’ was just a flimsy excuse for a rowdy evening of purposeless socialisation and gluttony - clearly, a waste of his time.
Now, however, having finally experienced the wonder of modern television in a much calmer environment, he had decided the whole experience to be… conflicting.
The artistic mastery presented in the film was evident - he was fascinated with the process of the hand-drawn animation, with the fluidity of it. He’d always had an interest in art - one of the few non-combat related subjects that mother let him cultivate and grandfather even encouraged as a mark of an intelligent and well-rounded man. Damian wasn’t sure Ra’s would approve of him finding value in the Western animated film, but, thankfully, he wasn’t there to ask.
The plot of the said movie, on the other hand, was predictable and pedestrian, and the message it conveyed...
“A bit heavy-handed of you, Richard,” Damian said, eyeing the man seated right by his side even though the couch could comfortably fit them both on its opposite ends.
Grayson shrugged, unperturbed and unapologetic, finding some sort of pleasure in the way his movement jostled Damian’s shoulder, too. “What can I say, I love myself some family drama.”
“One would think you would like to escape it from time to time.”
“Nah, for that I have my day job. I have to be on top of every new dramatic development in the Casa Wayne.” He stretched, reaching high over his head, spine arching until his vertebrates crunched and then slumped down in a lazy sprawl, seemingly pleased with himself and life in general as he turned to Damian with a quiet little smile. “So, wanna watch another?”
In some way, Damian wished to have the moral fortitude to decline, to escape the trap of looking into the earnest blue eyes begging him to agree, but, well, it was a Saturday and he didn't have much else to do.
There were bad days. Days when Jason would stay in his room, buried under the layers of soft blankets in the middle of his nest. Not in heat, not even close, he was shivering from cold and whimpering, speaking to himself in torn whispers, arguing with some invisible foe. Damian tried to stay away on such days, even though everything in him screamed to go and keep his umm’i company, to pull him out of that strange state of delirium, but… but it scared him. It scared him to see the omega like that, to smell his misery.
It was during one of these spells that Damian ended up in the nest, battered and bruised from his last training session, the need to seek comfort for once winning against his fear and apprehension. Umm’i didn't smell of his usual soft sweetness, it was thickly overlaid with distress, but if Damian pressed his face between the folds of his robe, pushed his nose into the shallow valley between his breasts, he could find enough of it to calm his breathing and relax his tense muscles. If he pressed close enough, if he growled softly enough, he could reach the omega through the haze of fear and pain, and have him respond in kind - by scenting Damian’s hair and stomach, softly licking his bruises and scrapes, pulling him under the blankets and furs where it was safe.
Only the calming purrs were absent, replaced by distressed whimpers and words whispered at a feverish pitch. “I’m sorry, Dami, I’m so sorry… God, I’m so useless, I can’t help you at all… I wish I could take you… take you away… I can’t protect you… I can’t protect anything…”
“It’s alright, umm’i,” he kept whispering into the soft fabric and even softer skin that, in his head, still faintly smelled of milk. “I have not been wounded. I have learned my enemy’s pattern and next time I will be victorious.”
“You… you’re five! You should be a kid... watching cartoons and playing with toy cars, and leaving crayons laying around for people to trip on, not… not learning which artery will bleed a man the quickest! You should be begging your mother to give you a dog, not poisoned knives!”
“Umm’i, I…” He didn’t understand. He was confused. What was wrong with him? Why was the omega so distressed? Was he unhappy with Damian’s progress, too? Would he… leave?
No! No, he couldn't! He couldn’t leave!
“Don’t be angry!” He tried to keep his voice steady, but he couldn't keep the wobble from it. “Umm’i. Don’t… I will get better!” He struggled out of the embrace and framed Jason’s face with his hands, not missing how small they seemed, how weak. Trying not to acknowledge how pale and gaunt that face was, how the eyes in it burned green and glossy with pain. “I will ask mother for a dog!” He promised - stupidly, daringly, in full seriousness and naivety of childhood. “I will ask for a dog and cartoons!”
Mother said no.
Later, she argued with Jason about it, Damian could hear them from across the yard. He was forbidden from visiting umm’i until he swore to mother that he will never again allow his mind to be clouded by frivolities.
Drake was an annoyance. He was quick-witted and intelligent, Damian had to give him that, but other than that the Robin was woefully inadequate. It grated, that this was what his father had settled on, that this was the one to inherit the mantle of Robin.
This was what had replaced Jason Todd!
So he might have treated the teen a bit more sharply than the rest at the beginning, what of it? It was completely in his right to test his future rival in any way he saw fit.
Only, if he knew it would displease father and Richard so… he might have been more covert in his dealings. A bit less obvious with his insults. Who would have thought that Drake was the soft kind of an alpha that took all jibes to heart and allowed his hurt to show? Didn’t anyone teach him how to keep his poise?
Unfortunately, making amends wasn't Damian’s forte and neither father nor Richard was offering help in the matter. They seemed to expect him to come up with a successful solution on his own, which was doubtlessly meant to add to his humiliation.
“A bonding experience should be in order,” Pennyworth suggested mildly one day because he was the least cruel of them all. And Damian, no matter how much he tried, couldn't find faults in that idea.
But the choice of the bonding experience was a hard one - they didn't have much in common with Drake, almost nothing at all. What could he do that would put Drake at ease without driving Damian mad with impatience and disdain?
In the end, after some careful consideration, he decided on sharing training time.
He wasn’t allowed to help the Bats with fighting criminals. Father was adamant that he stayed at the Manor every night and played the part of a normal, teenage boy during the day. Damian was an exemplary student at the Academy, but it was hardly a triumph, the rest of the kits made it rather easy to rise above them. Other than that, he had very few diversions from boredom and his frustration started to build.
Ever since he’d learned to walk he rarely stood still. It was either his omega’s nest or a constant barrage of lessons, missions and duties. Now, he felt… bereft.
Thankfully, Damian was permitted to use the training room under the Manor, under the pretence of keeping up with his body’s development. He has been trained in fighting techniques from birth and the months of inactivity were beginning to creep up on him - his joints were losing their flexibility and his speed suffered. Father was unwilling to allow him any weapons to train with, but as long as Damian could fashion a training sword out of a suitable tree branch he found in the garden one day, he could work on his form unhindered.
(“He won’t let you train with a real sword, so don't bother taking it.”
“I can’t go unarmed!”
“I know. But… keep them out of sight.”)
Now, finding fitting opponents was a problem. Grayson didn't visit nearly often enough to be a worthwhile prospect and father wasn’t likely to go all out with his only real son. Brown was a flake, suited more to sneaking around than open combat, and made too much noise overall. None of them used weapons with any kind of proficiency, being mostly close contact brawlers.
None, apart from Drake.
Drake’s physical performance was – comparatively disappointing, to be honest. Which meant that he could always use additional training with a competent teacher able to recognise his flaws and instruct him on how to fix them. Father had a magnificent form, of course, but it has been a while since he was anything other than a mature alpha of impressive stature and strength; grasping that not everyone could follow his steps wasn’t easy for him.
Drake needed someone who knew how to fight while looking up and exploit all the interesting angles of attack such perspective created with a ranged weapon.
Killing two birds with one stone, then. It was something Damian could do for the poor weakling.
Once he got Grayson on board with his idea, it wasn’t even that hard to convince Drake of the benefits of joint training.
Of course, then it was close to impossible to convince Richard to leave them to it - the alpha became the eager observer from the sidelines. Although he promised to keep the comments to a minimum, he could not stop making other noises that in his head were probably meant to be encouraging.
Now, Drake’s form was not terrible, Damian had to admit during their first lesson. The teen was light on his feet and knew his weapon well, knew how to read the tells from an opponent that didn’t much care to hide them and how to conserve his energy by using short, concise movements. But it didn't take more than ten minutes to come to the conclusion that his reaction time was the issue. Timothy, in short, thought too much. He fought like he did everything else, by attempting to figure it out first in an intellectual way, before even attempting to counterattack. Like father, he had plans and provisions in place for multiple different scenarios, all based on valid techniques and styles.
The difference being, he had little to no ingrained reflexes to go along with it, due to the lack of experience. He was a Robin for how long, four years now? With no substantial training before that, his inexperience was obvious.
The moment Damian stopped showing tells and came at him like a true assassin, Drake floundered. Without enough time to see the pattern of the attack and design a counter, without the involuntary reflexes that a lifetime of fighting provided to save his skin he was ending up on the mats within moments.
It was satisfying to a degree, Damian had to admit, to send the young alpha on his ass repeatedly with no repercussions waiting. But it was also frustrating because shouldn't have father fixed that already?
(“I had less than a year of training before I was allowed on the streets. Back then it felt like forever, now… what was he thinking?”)
Or maybe not. Thinking back on it, Grayson was a born acrobat with inherent reflexes and complete lack of fear, Jason came to the Manor already knowing how to take a hit. Timothy had none of that and father might have overlooked that little fact.
Not that it was going to keep Damian from being brutally honest with the teen.
“Drake, if you don’t pick up the slack, you’re a gruesome murder waiting to happen.”
Dick, who somehow always found the time in his busy day to stop by the Manor to spectate the training, chuckled from the edge of the mats. “Heh, you remind me of someone when you say that.”
“Pray to tell?”
“Jay used to… I had a terrible fashion sense back in the day...”
“What’s... changed?” Tim gasped from the floor. He took the latest kick on the side, it had to hurt. “You still can’t dress yourself…”
“He used to take that look at me and say that I look like an assault waiting to happen if I go uptown dressed like that.” Richard’s expression softened in recollection, even if the expected pain tightened the skin around his eyes.
Damian, carefully erasing any trace of emotion that the mention of his omega’s past life evoked, shrugged. “I see there was wisdom under the cape at some point,.” He looked at Drake. “Oh, how the times changed.”
Drake was standing, at least, winded and bruised, but upright. Good, at the least he was eager to learn, even if it wasn’t nearly enough to save him. “Get yourself into form, Drake, and face me properly! You’ll never learn these moves if you don't apply yourself.”
“I don’t really have the time to train one move for a month straight!” The teen snapped back, picking up his staff and getting back into position.
“You would have it if you’ve arranged your day in a sensible manner, worked on your sleep schedule and ate something that has actual nutrients in it, instead of caffeine, processed meat and empty carbohydrates.”
It not only served to nourish the body, but also made wonders for umm’i’s disposition, to have his daily routines standardised. Wayne Manor could use some damn scheduling.
“Oh wow, Dami, you don’t have to go for his whole life like that,” Grayson grimaced, trying to be diplomatic.
“It’s a pathetic life and deserves to be gone after.”
“You know guys? This stopped being fun a while ago.”
“Fun? I’m trying to help you improve, there’s nothing funny about that!”
It was exactly the wrong thing to say.
Grayson nearly blinded them with a smile. “Aw look, Timmy, I told you, he does care.”
Absolutely ridiculous and false!
“Richard, we will work on your diet next.”
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with my diet.”
“With all that empty sugar, no wonder Pennyworth has to adjust your suits in secret.”
“What!” Grayson looked at him in disbelief, aghast and betrayed at the same time. It was a good look for him. “This is so not true!” He protested, turning away in a huff.
They watched him leave until the door closed. Damian lifted his sword, only to be greeted with a speculative look Drake was measuring him with. It was an annoying thing, to be considered so, it meant that the wheels in the third Robin’s head were turning and that was never a good sign.
“Alfred doesn't do that,” Timothy said in the end. “He’d never waste a chance to let Dick know he’s putting on weight.”
Damian answered with a sniff, falling into position easily as breathing, “No. But he’s not above playing along to make sure Richard doesn't get diabetes.” They exchanged strikes, careful and slow. Drake was obviously coming up with another tactic, judging by the way he was giving ground. “Also, his posterior could use to lose a size.”
“Oh boy, you will have an army fighting you on that, most of them superpowered.”
“Hm, let them come. It’s high time to thin the herd of Grayson’s obnoxious enthusiasts.”
Yes, he was trying to lure Damian in, make him telegraph his next move.
“Oh, you’ve noticed?”
“His tragic tendency to attract the attention of old men with dubious morals?”
They both shivered and both tried to hide it. Grayson was a handsome alpha in his prime, but his complete inability to stop himself from flirting with danger was appalling.
“Good to have you on board,” Timothy smirked and for the first time it looked close to a real smile, “of the Save Grayson from Early Grave Initiative.”
Damian answered with a sharp smile of his own. “Glad to be here.” Then he sent Drake back on the mats.
This time, however, Timothy didn’t complain.
The real breakthrough happened a month later. When he saved Drake from drowning.
He wouldn't have to, and they might have been short a Robin if he didn’t (which wouldn't be such a terrible loss in his eyes, to be honest), if father didn't leave suddenly on some Justice League business, leaving them and Gotham under Richard’s supervision. Fate had it that two local gangs chose that time to wage a war on each other, additionally prompted by a local crime syndicate eager to use the chaos of a neighbourhood going insane as a cover for a very lucrative business deal concerning a shipment of heroin into Gotham Harbour.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t many helping hands to call on such short notice - Kane was the only one to answer, as she was in the area. Her and Grayson were setting out to deal with the street fighting, counting on their creed to make the thugs reconsider their involvement in the turf war. But that left only Drake to deal with the shipment and Richard wasn't happy about it.
They went back and forth, arguing the case, while Damian sat in the corner, listening and marvelling how easy it would all be if only guns weren’t off the table. One or two eviscerated bodies or a head with eyes gouged out and a bat-symbol burned out on the forehead would do wonders to keep the streets calm and controlled, freeing up resources to deal with other issues. However, as soon as he voiced that idea, he was met with silence and wide-eyed glances from all sides.
“Little D, how are you the darkest thing in a cave full of bats?” Grayson asked, giving him that look again. The one that spoke of pity and pain.
Kane, thankfully, wasn’t as soft. “Not that I don't agree, but yikes, Grayson, where did you find that kid?”
“Did I just hear you say ‘yikes,’ Kate?” Drake piped up from his spot at the computer.
“No, of course not, Timmy, Batwoman doesn't say cutsie stuff like that.”
He was surrounded by children!
“I don't see why you’re still here,” Damian spoke over the chuckles, fed up with the lack of professionalism and planning he was witnessing. “Drake can’t go alone, I agree, he will be shot in the back of the head within minutes...”
“...but the solution to that is easy. I’m the best trained out of you all, I hope you understand.”
“You want to help Tim?” Dick frowned at him, surprised.
“No, I want to go and do this on my own, of which I am fully capable, but I know neither of you trusts me enough to allow it, so the only option left is to team up with Drake and hopefully keep him alive.”
Then they argued some more about letting him out on the streets, for which Damian had no patience at all.
“I’ve been training my whole life in the art of survival! I can understand that it may not mean much when compared to doing flips for an audience or stalking the Batman across Gotham with a camera, but I think I can manage against the worst your city has to offer!”
Kane was the only one to take his outburst in stride. “I can see he had assassin training from the way he just murdered you both, boys.” She sounded so cocksure, so like umm’i would have sounded in her place… Damian found it hard to look at her. “There was also the kid that got the gig after trying to steal the tires off of the Batmobile, but you wouldn’t know about that.”
She was wrong, he did. It never ceased to amuse him.
In the end, he was allowed to go out - under strict rules of no engagement until absolutely necessary and no bloodshed under any circumstances, but he’d dealt with worse. As humiliating as it was to be stripped of his weapons, it was still an exhilarating feeling to finally be allowed to leave the Manor at night. To stretch his proverbial wings and fly over rooftops. It was even better when they’ve encountered resistance and he finally got to fight for real, with bones crunching and men screaming, and opponents thrice his size dropping down like felled trees.
A perfect finish was to witness Drake take a punch to the face and fall off the boardwalk into the dark, dirty river.
It was a bit less perfect when the Robin didn't resurface after a moment - and less great with every ten seconds past that where the head of black hair wasn’t pushing through the surface, spitting and sputtering.
Damian stopped, staring into the water, his thoughts conflicted - if he just didn't do anything, one problem would solve itself. If he just pretended not to notice, Drake would be gone and he would have one less rival to contend with. It’s not like he’d kill Timothy, if he just waited a bit. He could even fish him out, just a moment too late, to make it seem that he’d tried, that he’d cared, and no one would suspect anything. Grandfather would approve, mother would be proud of his ingenuity and umm’i…
(“Don’t kill good people!”)
Even if they’re hopeless? Unskilled enough to let themselves get killed?
Father would say that standing back and doing nothing was the same as murder, but he didn't have a stellar track record with that himself. If he did, umm’i wouldn’t have ended up dead...
Water closed over his head with a splash. Finding Drake in the dark wasn’t easy, but the teen was still struggling and the movement of water gave away his location. He was trapped in a knot of tangled fencing mesh some idiot had dumped into the channel and, from the looks of it, had lost his breather, stupid boy. It was quick work to free him and even quicker to push him to the surface. Damian expected to struggle with pushing the Robin on the shore - the size difference between them was considerable - but suddenly, Nightwing was there, strong and sure, pulling the wet bird onto the boardwalk.
Drake was choking and gasping, probably in shock, his body trying to expel water from his lungs, but his mind getting in the way with panicked reactions.
“Have no one taught you how to drown?!” Damian snapped as soon as he spat dirty water out his own mouth, angry that this rescue wasn’t over yet, angry at himself for no reason he could understand. “Nightwing, what are you waiting on, scruff him!” He snapped.
Only to be met with a look of profound confusion. “What?”
“Imbeciles, both of you!”
His jaw was too small to perform the move correctly and he lacked the extra canines, so he had to improvise. If he spaced his fingers just so and used his nails in place of fangs…
The hold on the back of Drake’s neck worked perfectly - Robin went down, flat on the ground, as his muscles relaxed in an involuntary reflex, panicked spasms easing as natural impulses took over, his body bringing the water up until there was nothing left to obstruct the lungs.
“Little D, what are you doing?” Grayson sounded mystified.
“Saving his damn worthless hide! Idiot thinks too much!”
Drake was the only one that could overthink his own impending death!
Once Timothy's breathing started to sound stable, a pair of large hands eased his own from the death-grasp on the back of Robin’s neck. Nightwing’s embrace was nothing like umm’i’s, but it was something to keep Damian upright and hide the way his body shook. Why was he shaking? The night wasn’t nearly cold enough and the river was room temperature at most, he should be completely fine. He wasn’t afraid of water and didn't spend that much time under...
“It’s okay, little D, you did great.” Grayson kept whispering into his ear, his wide hand rubbing calming circles on Damian’s back. Was the alpha scenting him? “Robin is alright now. Shh.”
“Richard…” What was wrong with him? This was all backwards!
“Shh, Robin is fine.”
“Robin can’t feel... past his waist…” Drake groaned and turned on his side slowly, sluggishly. “He needs help... getting up… oh god, what did you do to me…? I can’t move...”
“We can talk about it later,” Nightwing leaned in to softly nuzzle Drake’s wet hair and spare a quick lick over the scrape on his cheek. “Now come on, we’re going back to the cave. Batwoman and the Police will deal with the last of the turf war.”
Father returned home the next evening and, expectantly, had some words for them about the whole thing. Some very loud and harsh words for Richard and Timothy, and even a few growls for Damian, all in the same vein.
“I’ve told you he’s not to leave the house!”
Richard argued because that’s what Richard did, while Drake covered in the corner, brought down by the infection caused by swallowing a gallon of dirty river water. Damian didn’t really blame him for staying out of the way, Timothy had weak constitution for emotional arguments for an alpha, but still, he could back Richard up before it came to blows.
“Father, this is ridiculous!”
“Damian, stay out of it.”
“No, I shan’t! You’re being unfair and illogical. Don't you think that out of all the children you’ve employed so far I’m the one to have the best chances of survival?”
It might have been the choice of words or the fact that he had the gall to step up to his alpha, but the look father gave him was colder than the arctic circle and, somehow, at the same time burning like a desert sun. Damian fought the instinctive urge to shrink back, to cover. He was right and he knew it, and he was sure that father knows it too. So why did it feel like he was suddenly in danger?
(“If he ever hits… if he ever raises his hand to you, you’re out of there. No matter why… promise me, ‘bibi, you will leave.”)
“Will you hit me, father?”
Father didn’t. Instead, Damian was sent to bed without dinner and with a promise of further conversations on the subject of his conduct. The shouting in the Cave continued as he stomped up the stairs, trying and failing not to seem petulant.
By the time he made it to his bedroom, there was already a mug of hot cocoa on his bedside table, still hot and covered in an extra layer of whipped cream. Damn, Pennyworth worked fast.
But it didn’t make him feel better.
Damian slumped on the floor by the bed, a small unhappy heap, biting his lips to try to keep his emotions in check.
Father, Damian decided, was a hypocrite.
Damian was more than able to go out at night and help the family protect their city, Grayson and Drake agreed, they even praised his performance last night, his quick thinking. He’d saved Drake's life! So he was small, what of it? He was still bigger than Timothy was when he first put on the suit - still bigger than Jason when he first came to the Manor! He was almost eleven now, and lived with this clan for months, surely they’ve had enough time to recognise his skills!
No, instead, he was trapped in the house, like a prisoner on parole. Father distrusted him, that was clear, and Damian didn't know why it suddenly hurt to know. He knew from the beginning, but now he just wanted…
He didn't know what he wanted from them.
He wanted to curl up in the familiar nest, against the solid warmth of his umm’i and be comforted. But umm’i didn’t even write to him, didn't answer his letters.
Would mother keep them from him? It was a possibility, she was very clear on wanting Damian to grow independent of his omega. On severing their bond. It wouldn't be above her to cut their connection completely.
It made him feel even worse. And that made him angry.
What was he even doing there? What was his goal? To take over the clan… did he want to, though? This clan was broken.
He left the room because he wasn’t a child to be put into a time-out. There was one place he didn't yet explore in the Manor, one room that was still a secret that called to him constantly. The locked door in the Eastern wing, with a window overlooking the garden that was always hidden behind the curtains. Out of sight, out of mind.
The lock was not a challenge, it didn't take him ten seconds to deal with it. The hinges squeaked gently when he pushed the door and stepped into the darkness beyond. Used to moving around in the dark and counting on the decor matching his own room, he moved around until his shins found the bed and his left hand the bedside table and a lamp on it.
In the dull light the room looked unimpressive, just a standard affair, not that much different than his own - a bed, a desk, a bookcase and a walk-in wardrobe, - but at the same time Damian’s breath caught at the sight of it. It felt like he was trespassing, like he was peeking into the past uninvited. Like that one time, when umm’i had caught him hiding in his closet and tweaked his ear for snooping.
He went around the room on silent feet, taking in everything - dust covering every surface, titles of the books bursting out of the modest shelving unit, more of them stacked on he desk. There were a couple of posters on the wall behind the bed: one of them with a vintage car the other with a pretty omega girl in a very tight pair of jeans. Pennyworth had to experience a minor stroke when it appeared on his wall. There were clean clothes folded neatly in the chest of drawers and more of them hanging in the wardrobe.
Damian touched a sleeve of one of the dark jackets. It was a match to his own school uniform only more than a decade older, the cut of it a bit outdated, Academy’s crest still on the shoulder instead of the breast.
Everything was tidy if dusty - as if someone came in once a year to air out the room and sweep the carpets, and then locked the door and left it alone. Like a museum.
Or a mausoleum.
Like leaving fresh flowers on a grave on a sad anniversary.
It was ghastly. And it was unfair, but Damian didn't know what he’d prefer - the thought of people entering this room and displacing things in it made his stomach clench. Or worse, to have this life put into boxes and stored in some dark corner in the attic, never to be seen, to be forgotten with time by the people and the house itself. There was no good option.
The bed was made and Damian didn't expect it to smell of anything else than the old, withered traces of a fabric softener, but he still pulled the covers away and put his nose against the sheets. Like that, he could pretend for a moment that he’s where he wants to be. That he’s somewhere safe.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Drake’s voice was almost as soft as his steps, but Damian still blamed his distracted state for not noticing his approach. “Don’t let Bruce know.”
“Why? Does he ignore this place, too?” He didn't intend for his question to come out so vicious, but it did. “With the costume in the case, you’d think that he likes to remind himself of him.”
Timothy closed the door and seated himself on the edge of the bed. His eyes didn't roam, meaning he was here before. Of course, he would be, with his curiosity and stalker tendencies. “Jason is a sore subject.”
“It’s hard to notice that no one mentions the failed Robin by his name.”
And finally, there, some fire in Drake’s gaze. Finally, something above the calm acceptance. “Don’t call him that! He was a great Robin and Bruce's son.”
Damian was the man’s son too and look how little it meant. “And yet all that’s left of him is covered in dust and pushed out of sight!” A cloud rose from the pillow when he slapped it to prove his point. “All that’s left is a Good Soldier.” He sneered. “I wonder if that will be your fate too once you die, or Grayson’s. Or Kane’s. Do you have your own case yet?”
“You don't know anything. His death almost killed Bruce, almost destroyed Batman! It still hurts him, Damian!”
Maybe. But not as much as it hurt umm’i to live with it.
“He’d never avenged him, did he?”
“You just don't get it.” Drake deflated, anger leaving him, replaced by exhaustion and some kind of grim understanding. “Of course, how could you? That kind of pain and loss has to be a strange concept to you and your family.”
Weren’t they supposed to be his family? Wasn’t this what Grayson kept reassuring him about?
Damian bit his lip, fighting down the noise of anger and frustration that wanted to tear out of his chest. Because Drake, for all of his intelligence, was an idiot if he thought that being raised by the League spared one from feelings.
“...my umm’i was hurt.”
The words hung between them and only Drake’s curious look made Damian aware that he was the one who spoke them.
What was the point in hiding it now?
“The murdieash that raised me. My milk mother.”
“Milk…?” A look of confusion briefly rushed over the teen’s face. “Like… a wet nurse? A nanny?”
“The omega that nursed me from the crib. You didn’t think that an alpha mother could do it on her own, did you?”
“To be honest, I thought you jumped out of a test-tube fully developed, didn’t expect there to be a crib involved.”
Well, he was right in that instance, there was no crib. It was either mother’s arms or Jason’s nest, and then he was walking under his own power.
“Precious of you, Drake.”
“So, what happened to her?”
“He was hurt,” Damian corrected, enjoying how Timothy winced at the unintentional faux pas. “Terribly. Grandfather healed him, gave him a place in our clan, a nest for his own. Safety. Me.” He swallowed. “And yet he still woke up at night screaming, still afraid of the man who made him suffer. All because those who swore to protect him before, didn't do their job!”
It would be so easy, he realised at that moment, to reveal everything. To let the Bats know the truth, to confront them with the fact that the body they’ve mourned for years wasn’t real. That there was someone else taking care of their fallen bird and doing much better work of it. That Jason didn't want to return to them - didn't even want to talk about them. That he wasn’t some martyr to serve as a warning for the young capes and a reminder for the old ones.
It would be so easy to tell Drake that the boy he’d replaced grew into a man who could snap his neck one-handed.
But Damian cherished and honoured his omega, and using his pain as a means to hurt others would be beyond disrespectful.
“So, what happened?”
“I went out on my first hunt and brought back the head of that monster, so that my beloved could sleep safely in the knowledge that nothing will hurt him ever again.”
He watched blood leave Drake’s face, making his already pale countenance look downright ghostly. The hand that was reaching out to rest on his shoulder in comfort retreated as the young alpha shrunk away from him, remembering suddenly that yes, there was a river of blood separating their childhoods.
“Do not speak to me of love, Drake.” Damian made sure to keep his gaze. “Your clan scarcely understands its meaning.”
“Killing doesn't fix things. It never makes anything better.”
“You’re too smart to believe this. You’re just repeating what you’ve been taught, hoping that one day it will be enough.”
“This is not who we are, Damian. Not our way.”
“Didn’t your way already kill one bird?” Drake flinched and Damian was almost glad to see it.
He was so tired – so tired of the atmosphere in this house, in this family. It was like his home, but without the omega, without a corner to curl up in and breathe out, without the safety of knowing that he’s wanted and someone cares for him, without someone with a soft scent and soft touch to make everything alright.
People in this house didn’t touch.
Well, that wasn’t true, Grayson did. Did it as much as if he was an omega himself. But it wasn’t the same.
He was weak - mother wouldn’t waste time pointing it out, he was still too weak. Too attached.
“That trick you did…” Drake spoke up after a period of silence. He rubbed at the back of his neck where, Damian knew, dark bruises marked the imprints of his fingers. “By the river…”
“It’s not a trick.” If he wanted to change the subject then fine, Damian was all for it. “You’ve never been scruffed?”
“Well, yeah, but not since I was a kid. And not like that.” The wheels were turning again. “Did your omega teach you that?”
“...what did you mean about drowning?”
Damn Drake and his stupidly big brain.
“I meant that you’re all imbeciles and none of you had been taught how to keep his head in a pinch,” he sniffed, folding his arms in a clear expression of disapproval. “This is how you’ll die, unprepared.”
“Oh, you will die, Drake. You’re smart, but you’re not very strong and only moderately skilled at hand to hand. One out of three isn’t enough and one day soon you will be dead at the hands of another maniac with a grudge.” He smirked at the speechless teen. “But don’t let it bother you. If you stop being a nuisance, I may be persuaded to use one of the grandfather’s Pits to bring you back.”
“Don’t even joke like that, little D!” Dick’s voice cut in, making them both jump. The damn alpha was standing in the doorway - for how long? Why didn't they notice? “Lazarus Pits are terrible devices of madness and death, nothing else!”
Damian covered his surprise and dismay with a shrug. “I will allow myself to doubt your judgement concerning the subject only one of us has any quantifiable experience with.”
Grayson swiped a hand through his hair in exasperation, making his way inside until he was seated on the bed between them, looking tired and harassed. “Dami, this isn’t a joke, these things bring people back wrong.”
“Shows what you know, then, umm’i came back perfectly alright!”
He lied, he remembered a time when Jason wasn’t alright – when his gaze wouldn’t focus and he was scared of every shadow; when green would light up his eyes and muddle his mind – but that was in the past, he was alright now. He was perfect now.
Grayson and Drake, however, looked stricken.
“Little D…” started Grayson, but Drake cut him off. “When you said you’ve hunted down the man who hurt him…” Which made Grayson look even more stricken. Damnit, Drake had all the subtlety of a brick to the face. “Did you mean…?”
“Drake, you’re tiresome.”
“Wait, what is this about?”
“Nothing that concerns you, Richard. And you, Drake, stop looking at me like that, neither I nor my omega need your pity.”
And then Richard embraced him out of nowhere.
Damian froze in the embrace, eyes wide, mind distressingly blank. “What… what are you doing?”
“I hugging you, little D.”
“But you’re an alpha…”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t hug my little brother, does it? ”
He didn’t know what to say to that. Grayson obviously lived in some weird, twisted version of the real world where social rules didn’t apply.
“Little D? I talked to Bruce and gave him a piece of my mind, so stop worrying, he will come around.”
“Do what you want,” he grumbled.
“Dick, only you can attempt to hug an assassin training out of someone.”
“Hey, love is a powerful tool in the fight against evil!”
Now he was baffled. “But you don’t love me.” No one did, apart from umm’i. No one had any reason to, especially not his rivals to father’s name and fortune...
“Oooh, little D!”
“Richard, this is enough, stop squeezing me!”
“Shh, shh, it’s alright.”
“Stop! That’s it! When you finally die I won’t bring you back! You can stay deceased!”
“Ouch, I’m sure that’ll teach me.”
( “Don’t compete with Grayson, you won’t win. No one can win with the golden boy. Try to get him into your corner, he will be a powerful asset. Just don’t… try not to piss him off, he has a nasty temper.”
“I think I can deal with that.”
“You don’t have to. He used to love kids… He’ll think you’re adorable.”
“I’d rather he respected me! I will make him respect me!”
“Dami no, people love Grayson, if you get on his bad side, you’ll get on the bad side of the superhero community… people won’t give you the time of their day.”
“I’ll make them!”
“No, you won’t. You can’t.” Sadness. Regret.
“Umm’i… did this Grayson do anything to you? Do I have to kill him, too?”
“No! No, he didn’t… Y-you can’t!” His face was grabbed and held. “Listen carefully, Damian, you can’t kill good people. You just can’t. Grayson may be a pain in the ass, but he’s not a bad guy and you only kill bad guys.”
“But mother said…”
“No, you listen to me. You listen to me and remember this: you can only ever kill bad people, ones that hurt others. If there’s any other choice, you don’t kill anyone, but them. Understand?”
“Umm’i, that hurts…”
“Please, please remember that, ‘bibi, if nothing else. Don't let them know you were the one to kill him. You can’t ever let them know!)
It was after the breakfast the next day that father sought him out to… apologise.
“I shouldn’t have shouted at you. I’m sorry.”
It was strange and uncomfortable, an alpha apologising. He shouldn’t. Usually, when Damian got scolded, it was umm’i who came and smoothed over any ruffled feathers, so the next day no one had to discuss it further.
But, of course, they didn't have an omega.
“I was just… afraid. That something may happen to you. Tim almost drowned… that scared me. But you saved him and for that, I can’t thank you enough.”
Was it that father - was he trying to replace the omega in their lives? Not give them one, but… to provide the same comfort an omega could, alongside leading the clan as an alpha?
It was a mad notion, but… wasn’t Grayson the same? With all that hugging and petting, and being stupidly soft.
“Drake can’t work on his own.”
“Drake can’t work on his own. He thinks too much. He needs someone to watch his back.”
“Hm, you may be right. Thank you, Damian. Now get ready for school.”
Well, maybe it was a new lesson - taking comfort from the stilted and awkward alpha. West was surely strange that this was considered acceptable behaviour.
IHowever, it did make him feel a bit better.
He knew how to swim from the moment of his first breath, the inborn ability never allowed to be forgotten. Learning how to dive and stay underwater came after, mother taking that training into her own hands, not trusting anyone else with his life.
Learning how to drown properly came when he was four, once he was developed enough to think rationally and act against his instincts. The ability to keep his head while all his body wanted was to panic and claw for air was an important one – one could know how to keep their breath for a long period of time in ideal conditions, but once disruptions set in, not many could keep themselves calm enough to find a way to stay alive.
It was one of the most terrifying experiences of Damian’s young life – not only because the only way to learn how to deal without air was through experience. The worst was the understanding how far his mother was willing to go to make him great and how horrifying it was to realise how little he could do to fight her.
He was trapped in water, with mother’s hands on him and her face looking at him from above, beautiful and calm, unchanged, even as his lungs reached their capacity, as his natural instincts started to push him towards the struggle. Looking into her eyes, cold and expectant, as panic spilt over him – they were so close, and yet so far, her above the surface. He could feel his hands break out into the air, wet fingers slipping on her skin as they griped for purchase, but her arms were longer and stronger. And he was losing strength…
He thought: this is it. He knew she would stop at nothing to teach him and struggled to calm down, to do what she needed of him, knowing that was the only way to escape the predicament… but he was a child, and he could feel water entering his lungs, and his mother was not saving him.
Years later Damian still wasn’t sure if she’d let him up. If she had not decided to let him drown and start again from scratch, or simply use the Pit to revive him – as many times as necessary until he has learned the skill. The thought he couldn’t get rid of, couldn’t purge, always somewhere at the back of his mind, a doubt that never went away, that didn’t let him fully relax in mother’s embrace ever since.
She’d never cleared it up either, never discussed what she would do if they haven’t been interrupted.
A splash, water boiling around him, mother’s face disappearing from his fading vision and then… arms around him changing, replaced by bigger ones, large hands that gripped him around the middle and pulled up… glorious air… he coughed and choked, his body struggling to exchange water for air in his lungs, panicked responses getting in the way as he gasped and spat on the cold tiled floor, ears full of white noise and chilled skin burning where it as touched by frantic, hot hands that pulled and pushed… He almost blacked out, he thought later, maybe died, like a fish pulled on the shore by callous nets…
Then he was turned around, belly down, hot breath on the back of his neck before it was grabbed roughly in a pinching grasp, eight sharp points stabbing into his flesh, pressing hard… And then unnamed calm overcame him. His muscles relaxed between one blink and the next, vision turned blurry and Damian felt himself going completely boneless. So unlike any other scuffing he’d experienced so far – this was so total, so complete, he didn’t even have the choice to surrender, it wasn’t even a possibility to resist… he didn’t want to, because he was safe. His body expelled the rest of the water without his conscious input, wet heaves shaking his small form, but he didn’t mind as much, because there was a hand rubbing his belly between the spasms and another one circling his chest, keeping him in place until the spasms turned into exhausted shivers. There might have been a purr, but Damian wasn’t sure, his ears were full of water, everything was muddled and echoing, and it took him entirely too long to realise that he was whimpering. But he wasn’t scared anymore, there was a big body crouched over him, keeping him safe, warm and protected, through the chemical odours of chlorine and salt he could smell its sweet scent. Umm’i. Umm’i had him.
But then umm’i was torn away and Damian was left on the floor, limp on his side, unable to move and barely able to comprehend as mother assaulted their omega. Her displeasure was clear and there was a mark on her face, her hair in disarray, and Damian wanted to shrink away, understanding what happened, disbelieving his own eyes because that would mean umm’i attacked mother to pull him out…
Which was impossible. Madness. Inconceivable to his young mind, because mother was an alpha and no one ever stood up to her and lived… not like Jason was standing up to her, planted firmly between her and Damian, the sound coming out of him something the boy had never heard before – lower than an alpha growl, sharp and brutal, and it hurt to hear it. It hurt at the bottom of his stomach. Mother was speaking, her words scathing and so, so angry, but the omega didn’t answer, just kept making that noise and not letting her come close.
Damian had never, before or after, felt more terrified and at the same time safe.
The stalemate broke when mother moved. They fell into one another like beasts and, could Damian move, he’d slip back into the water to escape them, he would curl up to escape seeing and hearing it, Jason’s eyes glaring green and his teeth bared, all of the fangs on display, making that sound – that was it, the Madness had taken over, mother wouldn’t want to keep him, grandfather would put him down and Damian would be alone from now on, alone, alone…
“What is the meaning of this?”
He was smothered, again, the omega crouching over him, protecting him with his own body and Damian wanted to cry. Grandfather wouldn’t stand to be challenged. Not by anyone. Not even…
“Talia, calm yourself.” Ra’s voice was cold, colder than the water on the floor. What Damian heard of it above his thundering pulse was unimpressed. “Of course. But will you stand against an omega protecting a kit?”
Steps closer. And umm’i winding so tight around him Damian could feel his muscles shiver. He smelled blood, but couldn’t open his eyes.
“Will you fight me?”
“…will I have to…?”
“Take your kit to the nest. Later we will talk.”
He was lifted, cradled, carried away in the arms that shook around him, pressed to the chest echoing with a frantic heartbeat, his face resting in the crook of the neck, between wet cloth and warm, fragrant skin. Umm’i kept licking his ear and making calming noises all the way across the palace.
He didn’t know what to do, wasn’t taught how to react, so he just clung to the warmth and safety, and the faint softness that was slow to release his joints.
He wasn’t sure when they got to the nest, he was just in it suddenly, naked and dry, and warm, scented and inspected all over, his belly nuzzled and his back petted soothingly, and he was so comfortable and content he could barely see straight. Umm’i hid him under the blankets and Damian snuggled to the wide chest, long buried need pushing him to mouth at the nearest nub – he was allowed, umm’i pulled him in closer and let him nurse, even though it’s been over two years since the last time… even though the other side of his chest was a mess of blood and torn skin. A patch of flesh gouged out by mother’s claws; a long, jagged line cutting through the middle of the breast that had never healed properly after that, leaving an ugly, angry scar.
There were arguments after, once the wounds have healed and flesh knit together. Once Jason shook off most of the Madness clinging to him with desperate claws.
“He has to learn and it’s not your place to disrupt that!”
“He’s as much mine as he’s yours!”
“Not anymore. He outgrew your nest and you will stop trying to coddle him!”
“He’s four! You’re insane! Over my dead body, you’re going to drag him back to that well…!”
“Do not try my patience, omega...”
“I will tear your throat out if you touch him...”
Grandfather’s hand was cold when it rested on Damian’s shoulder. “Look carefully,” he said, pointing at the argument happening in front of them. “Listen carefully. One day you will have a mate of your own and their instincts will make them strong enough to stand up to you in defence of your kits. Honour that sacrifice, respect it, for no one else will dare to challenge you like that, but don’t let them forget you’re the alpha.”
Damian looked, listened and remembered. Even years later, when he was cutting through the bone and tendons to remove the head of his prey from the body, he remembered.
No one was ever going to protect him, not his mother, not his sire, no one apart from his umm’i will ever step between him and danger.
(“…will I have to…?”)
Thanks to beautiful beautiful m00nslippers we're back online and even betaed:D
This chapter is for some outside perspective - Dick and his struggles with the pack full of misfits;)
The party was well underway and Dick had already managed to dodge three disturbingly young omegas eager to get into his pants and had yet to dance with any woman younger than fifty-five, which was an accomplishment in his book. He never knew where his fame as a womanizer came from, to be honest. In his private life, sure, he didn't have the best track record where relationship were concerned, but during these parties all he ever did was schmooze with the old ladies and finding creative ways to avoid talking to people. He was confident in his charm, but Tim was better at vapid smalltalk.
(Hell, the street kid Bruce had brought home more than a decade ago was better than Dick—a charming smooth-talker with an inviting smirk and a smartass retort to everything.)
Dick was a performer, liking attention was par the course for him, but on the trapeze he never felt like a sheep thrown to the wolves. No one wanted to orchestrate him knocking up their kid when he was swinging through the air, no one took discrete snapshots of him to later sell to a sleazy magazine alongside some made up scandal.
He still tried to enjoy the galas as excuses to meet the few colleagues he grew up around and to gorge himself on the fancy entrées and tiny, crumbly desserts. It was also one of the rare chances to put on a suit and Dick actually liked suiting up in a decent Armani and showing off a bit—daily life didn't leave him with a lot of chances to put on a fancy getup, unless one counted that other kind of suit taking space in his wardrobe. It felt nice to be Richie Grayson, adopted son of Bruce Wayne, a normal human being with a normal job and a normal life.
It was also a chance to see his assorted siblings dressed up and for once gossip about something other than the villain of the week. For example, Sir Allen-Weston’s combover was just as hilarious as it has been for the last five years and Dick needed to find Stephanie or Tim ASAP to share with them this joyous discovery.
It was a stroke of luck that in his search he stumbled upon the latest new member of his family.
“...and East is a bit backwards like that, I guess.” Ah yes, Lady Vivian Vonnegought and her posse, Dick should have expected that the socialite butterfly would take interest in the newest addition to the Wayne pack sooner or later. “Especially when it comes to omega rights.”
From where Dick stood Damian was… complicated. Almost a year past the boy’s unexpected and dramatic arrival, he was still a strange and unusual creature, even when put against the family that wasn’t normal to begin with. The kid had mellowed down considerably from these first days: he didn't try to kill Tim anymore, for example, and stopped vocally rejecting Dick’s shows of affection. He was still standoffish and way too serious for a child his age, but he knew how to play along and stick to his role of a millionaire’s good little son.
Unless, of course, one went ahead and disrespected his heritage.
“In a way I have to agree,” Damian’s voice rang clear and level, and Dick’s heart speed up as he tried to push his way through the crowd without crashing into anyone too much. “I imagine omegas in Gotham can’t really afford to be tied down by maternal duties.” Oh fuck and biscuits, if there ever was a sore subject to pick up with the kid… “Serving as arm-piece to an alpha seems like a tremendous commitment.”
Dick could almost hear the air disappearing from the small circle of ladies and omegas surrounding his little brother, could almost hear the pin dropping in the shocked silence that followed this words.
When he finally came in full sight of the scene, it was as horrifying as it was amusing. Damian was such a perfect little copy of Bruce, with his tiny suit and his confident posture, and the unimpressed look he was levelling at the older matriarch of the prominent Gotham family who had at least two feet on him. The only thing that made him different from his father was the skin colour, darker than Bruce’s, darker than Dick’s, signaling a mother who was an easy target for the societal gossip due to her very obvious absence.
Dick could easily imagine how the discussion got to where it was—Damian wasn’t at all ashamed of the fact that he was raised by an omega wet-nurse, he was proud of it—and the vultures didn't need more than that to descend.
Unfortunately, they’d miscalculated, because this was not a kid to leave a duel without securing his kill.
Where was Tim? Why did he leave him alone? Where was Bruce, for that matter?
“At the very least, the adornments omegas in Gotham wear appear quite sensible.” Damian looked at Vivian’s teen daughter and the glitter of Swarovski crystals on her neck and wrists. “Although mother would die of shame if her omega had ever attended a social gathering dressed in glass.”
Aaand that was his cue. “Dami, there you are! I was looking for you, the desserts are out!” Dick swung into the witch’s cauldron, fearless, putting all he had into his smile and the flawless, smooth, flirty persona of Richie Grayson, hoping it was strong enough to disperse the miasma of hostility building around his brother. Damian tensed only a bit when Dick’s hand landed on his shoulder. “My apologies, ladies, I have to whisk my little brother away, we don't get to spend enough time together as it is.”
He blew the ladies a cheeky little kiss and towed Damian away, out of the room, toward the corner where tables bent under the weight of confectionery wonders. Once there, Damian shrugged his hand off and gave him a thoroughly unimpressed look. Well, at least he tried to restrain his disdain this time.
“You have to play the part,” Dick muttered, busying himself with a plate of gold-dusted macarons. “That’s what these parties are all about, just playing our parts and letting go.”
“Tt,” the kid sniffed, but didn’t refuse when Dick handed him his own plate of goodies. “These…creatures are a disgrace to their caste.”
It didn't take a detective to figure out who the kid was talking about. Damian's opinion of the Western gender norms was distressingly low.
“Now, that’s a cruel thing to say. They’re perfectly lovely.” And they were! Omegas were the best. Like Mr Benton’s older son, for example, that Dick could see across the room, flowing gracefully in a slow waltz…
“They’re vapid and empty-headed.” Damian followed his gaze and wasn’t impressed at all at the end of that journey. “And dressed like harlots. Elegance seems to be a strange concept in this city; umm'i wouldn't be caught dead like that outside of the nest.”
Alright, not everyone appreciated gauzy silks and lace, but that was no reason to call anyone names. Dick happened to appreciate local omega fashion wholeheartedly. “Let’s agree to disagree, then, for me they’re perfectly fine.”
“Is that why you’re avoiding them like a plague, Richard?”
“He got you here, Dickie.”
Barbara looked splendid in her elegant navy dress, skilfully navigating the crowd on a wheelchair, and Dick almost forgot to swallow his tongue at her teasing tone.
“I haven’t seen you so stubbornly avoiding romantic advances in a while,” she said with a wink.
“Astute as always, Gordon,” Damian admitted.
Dick felt attacked. “Hey, I can appreciate the sights without wanting to taste the goods. I’m just not eager for a mate yet.”
And wasn't that the issue that had left his bed cold and empty time after time? It wasn’t that he didn't want a partner and a lover, it’s just that he couldn't think of a reason yet why anyone would deserve him as their mate - he didn’t want to tie anyone down, making them unable to leave when they, inevitably, grew tired of him and all the issues that came with Dick Grayson and his mess of a double-life.
Barbara knew about it. Damian didn't have to.
Not that it would stop the boy from voicing his opinion on the matter anyway. “Another perversion,” he sniffed. “When a worthy omega chooses you as their mate, your wants are unimportant.”
Dick almost stabbed himself in the face with a pastry fork. “Oookay.” Was he blushing? It felt like he should be blushing in mortification and Babs didn't look any better. “This is super creepy coming out of your pre-teen mouth, Dami, please stop.”
“Tt, it’s like no one teaches your children about proper things in this country.”
“Right again.” Tim appeared out of nowhere, stealing a spoonful of cream out of Dick’s millefeuille and the wind from his sails. “The sex-ed in US is woefully inadequate.”
“Are we talking about sex at Bruce’s gala?” Stephanie appeared behind Tim and promptly stole the rest of the pastry. “Because I’m so here for talking about sex at Bruce’s gala.”
“Brown.” Damian nodded to the girl, true to form, ignoring Tim.
“Little bean,” Steph nodded back. She reached for a plate of her own and started piling on food. “So, what are we doing? Livening up the damp atmosphere of the event by banding against Dickie?”
He was being so attacked! “Hey, I saved a bunch of lives ten minutes ago, let me eat my fill of expensive confectionery in peace.”
“Oh?” Babs’ eyes dropped to Damian, who was chewing on a macaron with a single-minded displeasure that was just adorable. “Were you accosted by the Gothams’ best and shiniest?”
“They think I’m amusing, because I’m barely a teenager and yet I speak in a fashion more mature than their water-brained children. I can hardly help my superior upbringing and the care put into my development.” The kid shrugged. “I understand the purpose of partaking in these…events, as a member of the upper echelon of Gotham’s social hierarchy, of course, but the need to lower myself to pretend I find enjoyment in their vacuous conversations escapes me.”
Dick was time and again taken by surprise by Damian not only looking like a tiny Bruce Wayne, he was also speaking like a concentrated version of Bruce’s British upbringing. Like a little lordling forced to consort with the lower classes.
“I kinda agree with the kid,” Tim admitted with almost visible discomfort. “I could be going through so much work right now.”
“On this occasion, even though it pains me, I have to side with Drake.”
“Treat it like reconnaissance, boys,” Barbara said with a smile. “Get your yearly fill of Gotham’s crème de la crème.”
“There's only one kind of cream I'm interested in here.” The pile of profiteroles on Stephanie's plate held together due to sheer determination and her prodigious skill at Tetris. “And I'm intending to get my fill, alright.”
“I think they have these little mint cupcakes in the other room,” Dick was glad someone finally said something that made sense. “The ones you liked last time.”
“Dick, never change.” Steph pecked his cheek before gleefully jogging away with Tim’s neck firmly trapped under her spare arm. “Come on, Babs, you have to try them, they’re to die for!”
Thus abandoned, Dick did his best for the rest of the party to keep Damian in sight at all times and intervene when necessary—a need which increased as the night progressed. The boy was not having fun, he was barely over eleven and had to be tired and bored of having to socialize with people whose only interest in him was skin-deep and in a large part disingenuous.
Ten past ten, Dick decided that enough was enough. “Hey, little D, want to go back home? I think you’ve paid your dues.”
He could almost see the fight happening in his little brother’s head, the duty-bound obedient son against the boy wanting nothing more than to lock himself in his room with a cup of tea and a book. A little soldier taught to see things through to the end versus a kid yearning to accept the offered chance of reprieve. In the end, the reasonable part won.
“There’s nothing to gain from keeping this charade up any longer,” Damian admitted. “Yes, take me back to the manor, please.”
The ‘please’ was a new thing with him and Dick appreciated it, no doubt a result of Alfred’s influence.
The ride back to the Manor was peaceful, the streets were empty and when Dick put the radio on, soft tunes of the nightly jazz audition spilled inside of the car. Damian sat in the passenger seat, initially stiff and unmoving like a mannequin in a perfectly pressed suit, but slowly his posture relaxed, small shoulders slumped and his expression grew… morose.
“They’re not always like that,” Dick spoke softly over the music. “The people. Some of them yeah, some of them are nasty and way too removed from reality, but many of them are perfectly friendly and reasonable once you get to know them.” They were all playing their parts, after all.
“Nothing about these people is reasonable,” Damian answered sharply. “You only think so, because your world-view is skewed, Richard.” Dick watched from the corner of his eye as the boy fidgeted with the seatbelt and bit on his lower lip. These tells weren’t there when he’d first arrived, it was heartening to see Talia’s little doll exhibiting more human behaviours as time went by. “Anyway, I’m not here to make friends with the plebeians, I’m here to rule them one day.”
“Aw, little D, what better way to rule over people than to make them love you?”
“Gaining their respect through fear is much faster and convenient.”
God, it was delivered so straight that for a second Dick wanted to pull to the side of the road and smack the little monster out of the kid he was tentatively starting to like.
“Isn't that what father does?”
And then he would smack Bruce for ever, ever coming up with that sterling idea!
“I was joking, Dami, please don't terrorize the upper crust.”
“Why not? They’re all superficial and transparently useless beyond their monetary worth.”
Well, if that wasn’t deeply anarchistic. Not what he expected from the child of Ra’s Al Ghul, the king of adhering to rigid social hierarchies. And, surprisingly, so alike the other spunky little rebel Dick used to know.
Huh, to think of him now...
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you were born into two very affluent bloodlines, if you're planning on remaining an heir to both, you’ll have to learn to schmooze with the upper classes without bloodshed. You’ll probably want to find a mate at some point, and I don't think your mother will be happy with someone common.”
That got him a scoff. “Please, Richard. If I chose an omega they’ll be anything, but common, regardless of their class. I can’t rely on umm'i to manage my future clan indefinitely.”
Ah yes, the ever elusive Umm'i.
Dick sometimes found it hard to believe that the omega existed at all, but Damian wasn't likely to make things up like that—on the contrary, he seemed to possess very little imagination when it came to ‘frivolous matters’ inherent to normal childhoods. He was always so sure when speaking of the omega, so…respectful. So proud. It was about the only time when his face would look like that of a child, rare occurrence that didn't occur even when he was speaking of his birth mother...
Some days Dick wanted nothing more than to meet that mysterious omega and ask them for pointers on how to deal with their little angry prince.
Now, of course Dick wasn't a fool—no one in the family was, not in the traditional sense—so he’d spent a lot of time observing Bruce’s heir apparent, because that was what the bats did. They distrusted, they observed and investigated, and made their conclusions based on facts regurgitated ad nauseum until they were distilled down to the barest basics. He wasn’t the only one that did it, he was just better at covering his cold-blooded distrust with friendly overtures and clumsy attempts at socializing the brat.
It didn’t matter that he suspected Damian saw right through him (the boy was raised by Talia, of course he could match their wits) it was enough to notice a few weak spots the kid had because, well, he was still a kid. That’s what Dick looked for, to be honest.
All discoveries were discussed between the family in one way or another and noted down. Having an Al Ghul in Gotham was dangerous, but having one in their pack? That was near unthinkably risky. But it happened, and Dick could not stop it - the kid was Bruce’s, and no matter how unintended his conception was, he carried Bruce’s scent and wasn’t shy about revealing his origin and purpose—to rule the pack and then the World, and the rest of that megalomaniacal crap Talia and Ra’s had put into his head.
He was not to be trusted, of course, but also…but also he was just a fucking kid. A child. A child that knew seven different languages, about ten different fighting styles, how to use any weapon thrown at him and most likely had already killed at least one person in his life, and for some reason, Dick thought it was more tragic than terrifying. It was enough for him to consider Ra’s al Ghul having a hand in raising any child, taking into account all that Dick knew about the alpha, and his image of Damian was changing from a ‘threat’ to a ‘victim’. Damian needed help and, anyway, he wasn't the first problematic pup the family had taken in…
And here Dick was, thinking again of him—of the ghost following Dickand Bruce for close to a decade now. That pale, stubborn, bright-eyed boy with a charming smile and biting humour.
Damian lacked desperately in the charm department, but the stubborn-hardass field he had covered top to bottom.
His first year was a time of near constant surveillance and suspicion, but at the same time, of shy overtures of friendship and little signs of acceptance from both sides. Damian was a smart kid, but not worldly enough yet to cover up how sheltered his upbringing was in some ways—and Dick, with his near-meta level skill at detecting hurt little creatures denied joy, was on it like a bloodhound.
Sometimes, it looked to him as if the boy had a list of things and experiences that he was slowly going through, crossing them off one by one, almost like research…into a common childhood experience?
Dick was present when Damian tried Coco Puffs for the first time—and the kid straight up savoured them, like he was tasting a fine wine and trying to pinpoint its origin, only to shake his head in the end and declare, “I expected better.” He was disappointed—almost as if someone had built the cereal up for him previously. But who? TV? Classmates?
Watching cartoons revealed even more, Damian also had expectations there. Expectations that Dick enjoyed challenging, but nonetheless…
In the time spent around the little assassin Dick had noticed things about him and not all of them were always adding up,but not in a concerning way. Just…in an odd one.
His accent, for example. The boy spoke almost perfect English, the proper Oxford; there were moments when he sounded like a representative of the House of Lords. He only tripped when he was surprised or exhausted enough not to care—then his Eastern accent leaked out, sneaking into his speech like wood-smoke. Words grew smooth and rounded, odd grammatical patterns flashed here and there. It was normal, expected, the kid was just a human, after all.
But then there was this other thing that sometimes happened, and the first time it did was so unexpected and brief that Dick was too surprised to even register it properly. His brain detected something out of order, but couldn't make sense of it until much later, when it happened again.
The thing was, Damian swore openly.ot often, not excessively, but he knew the words and knew when to use them (to Alfred’s shock and horror and Dick’s immense amusement). Unlike other kids, who learned a naughty turn of phrase and used it with glee, Damian swore like an adult, with purpose.
The bizarre part was that he swore with a distinctive Jersey accent. Which neither Dick’s brain nor Tim’s best guesses could explain in any sensible manner.
As for Tim...well, that was another thing.
The Damian al Ghul who first arrived in Gotham was one bad thought away from murdering the Robin and made no secret of it. It served to make the first few weeks of family dinners very tense and unpleasant, and changed in a subtle, unexplained way with no discernible reason.
Dick knew the boy all those months ago was eager for his father's approval and affection, even if his awful upbringing (Dick could only assume, but he was pretty sure there was nothing good about being raised in the midst of the Assassin’s nest) made him act like it didn't matter and his stilted behaviour and speech patterns made him seem confrontational 24/7. Even asking for a salt-shaker during breakfast sounded like a challenge to a duel at dawn.
It was understandable then, that the kid had problems connecting with others. Especially with Tim, who was a sensitive boy, forever unsure of his place in the pack, of his welcome in the Manor, of his alpha’s approval. To be taken in and have all of his idiosyncrasies and weird habits accepted, and then confronted with the presence of a legitimate blood son appearing out of nowhere and moving in as if he owned the place—yeah, it would shake everyone and, okay, Tim was less than gracious about it at the beginning. Dick knew exactly how much it could shake you, and Tim wasn’t even half as much of an asshole as Dick had been when confronted with his own contender for the title, which was actually never up for grabs in the first place. He knew all about the fear of being replaced and about the regret that acting on that fear caused years later. Dick was in that specific place of understanding where he could see both sides of the conflict clearly. He had laid his own demons to rest on that front years ago. He was mature enough to understand his mistakes and their terrible consequences.
So he played the peace-keeper between the two, because God knew Alfred needed a break and Bruce was raised as a beloved single child and the only thing he never had to fear was being replaced by another. Sometimes Dick wished that the Waynes’ had the foresight to adopt an orphan or two and give their son the priceless life lesson of being an older brother in a rich family.
Not that poor families were excluded from the issue, but there was a certain kind of cold loneliness to being provided for in an off-hand manner.
Tim cooled down significantly after Dick had a few conversations with him on the subject of trust and history repeating itself. Even though Timmy didn't come to the pack with the intent of replacing the last Robin, he kind of ended up doing it anyway, and it was a bit unfair of him to expect to be the last kid Bruce would ever take in, not by a long shot.
Dick’s attempts to get to Damian with a similar realisation were less successful, the kid was a hard-sell with rigid opinions (unsurprising, considering his parentage) and was stubborn (extremely unsurprising) in his ways. But he was trying, Dick could see it and he was sure it wasn’t just his wishful thinking. Damian wouldn't listen to him openly, of course, but given enough time to observe and reach his own conclusions, he usually came through.
Then the night of the bust in the docks happened and Dick learned another thing—Damian wasn’t the heartless little robot he was pretending to be. Because Dick watched Tim fall into the channel, watched him go under and as much as Dick’s heart urged him to jump in and make sure Tim was okay, he didn't. Instead, he observed Damian and tried to read his reactions, and God forgive him, but he needed to know. Needed to be sure they weren’t making a mistake, that this child wasn’t unsalvageable. Needed to believe Tim knew what he was doing and trust him.
He wasn’t disappointed. It took Damian a distressingly long time to come to a decision, but once that happened, he jumped after Robin and pulled him out of the water within seconds. Dick was there to help them both on the shore and see first-hand the panic reflected in the boy’s eyes when faced with the realisation that he might have been too late. He was there to hold Damian and tell him it was okay.
It was underhanded and maybe a bit cruel, but Dick needed to know and needed Damian to pass that test for all of their sakes.
Then, of course, he paid for it when Bruce caught wind of their little experiment. The argument was explosive—more so when the reason for taking the boy out in the first place was revealed.
“Bruce, do not try to convince me you wouldn’t have staged anything like that if the idea came to you first!” Dick learned to be ruthless years ago. “Tim and you are the same in that aspect, but at least he can admit he’s being a calculating little shit!”
“It was stupid and risky!”
“Because we’re all reasonable and careful people, aren’t we?”
“What if he didn't make the right choice? What then?”
“Then we would know he’s either lost for good or not smart enough to cover all bases. But now I know he wasn’t acting, he wasn’t pretending to care for our benefit. Now we know there’s a spark of decency and compassion in your son, Bruce.” Dick swallowed. “And we both know we've done dumber things for lesser rewards.”
Because that? That was big, it changed things.
That was hope when they so desperately needed it.
Except, then it turned sour when Dick gathered enough courage to ask the question that had burned him ever since that night, born out of a line the boy had thrown at them in a moment of anger.
“Has no one taught you how to drown?!”
He didn't want to follow the path his suspicions had taken him on, but it took root and could not let him rest. As impressed as he was with the impromptu scruffing and its startling effectiveness, it cast a darker shade.
So, stupid and daring as only Dick Grayson could be, he had cornered the kid and pestered him long enough to get an answer to his questions.
Then he kind of wished he hadn’t. It was only made worse by the fact that Damian told him the story so dryly and matter of factly, as if it was something normal, something that just happened to kids his age. Like an anecdote from your English class or something—not a horrific example of cruelty the al Ghul clan was capable of.
The Drowning Lesson, Damian called it. Dick could barely keep himself together by the end of it. He gave the kid the biggest hug imaginable – startling him again, because of course, Damian didn't believe in alphas providing emotional support and no wonder. Jesus.
He shared the news with Tim and Stephanie, he had to. They had a family-wide network for accumulating intel on the newest little bird, after all, sharing information and speculations. Dick had to share this with someone before it tore him apart at the seams, and that person could not be Bruce.
No, not Bruce, who was starting to genuinely care for the boy and accept him into the pack as an integral member, as his, and those instincts could only stand so many times where his children were hurt. If Dick told him about it, Bruce would either be on the plane to tear Talia a new one within hours or—and this was the worse option—he’d turn the guilt and anger internally and shut the door on himself emotionally.
Timmy and Stephanie, it was then. He caught them in Gotham at the end of a patrol in one of the better neighborhoods, and armed with takeout coffee and pastries they all perched on the roof of the nearby bank, crowding around the stone gargoyle. It was something of a hangout spot for the Robins, Dick thought with amusement, they should give the old stone sucker a name.
Tim and Steph were as pale and incredulous as Dick felt the situation warranted when he finally finished relaying the tale of the Drowning Incident.
“Christ,” Tim croaked in the end. He cleared his throat and started again. “I may send Bruce a Thank You card for training me in a humane way.”
“Hard to believe,” Steph muttered, chewing absent-mindedly on a buttered croissant. “It’s scary as hell, sure, but what that omega did…it’s kinda hot.”
Dick didn’t have to ask for clarification. Talia was an exceptionally dangerous woman, standing up to her required balls of steel that few in the vigilante community possessed. Bruce made sure to drill it into their heads that if they were ever put into position against her, they were to immediately call for backup and retreat if possible. Avoid engagement at all costs, because even if they managed to survive, the cost of it simply wasn’t worth it.
And the Umm'i was apparently fine with having a go at the head alpha herself and that…that was hard for Dick to wrap his head around.
Ra’s al Ghul was ancient and admittedly terrifying. Dick had met him exactly once when he was still a Robin, barely over thirteen, and that experience was something he wasn't going to forget. How the scent of his alpha disappeared underneath the onslaught of strange spice that filled the air, exotic and suffocating in its potency. The old alpha spoke to Bruce as if the man was nothing more than an unruly pup and Dick’s hackles rose, but then one look from these green eyes was enough to drop them back into his feet and dry his mouth, make his tongue stiff and unresponsive. There was no quip or pun, or a joke in his head left to lighten up the atmosphere; there was nothing, but the urge to hide under Batman’s cowl like a scared pup. And Ra’s didn't even acknowledge his presence properly, it was just an offhand glance, as if Robin was a misplaced piece of furniture, not one note in his scent had changed.
Bruce was the one to move, to step in front of Dick and shield him from sight, stiff-backed and stone-cold, continuing his negotiations with the head of the League of Assassins.
Nowadays, Dick knew what it was that made Ra’s al Ghul such a disconcerting presence—he wasn’t human, but not in the way that Clark was or, hell, even J’onn. This was a humanity discarded and traded away, this made him into something that all human senses registered as wrong and dangerous. Not even taking into account his cunning, heartless pragmatism and fighting prowess, he was just wrong..
And to have an omega willing to stand in front of this man with his teeth bared…
(“What did he do?”
“Grandfather? He sent us away to the nest.”
“He didn't…hurt your omega, did he?”
“No, of course not. Why would he? Umm'i was doing what omegas are meant to do, how could grandfather fault him for that?”)
This was so, so, outside of what omegas were meant to do it was inconceivable. Protective instincts were one thing, but most omegas would chose to take cover from an alpha that could tear them to shreds, protecting their pups by appealing to the alpha’s pack instincts. That was the correct way, that kept them alive. Escalating conflict only ever resulted in bloodshed.
(“And if he’d attacked?”
“...then umm'i would've fought.”
He’d die—that’s what Dick read in the boy’s eyes. That omega would die in his defence, and Damian found it something to be proud of instead of terrified.
“Umm'i will always fight for me.”)
“If that omega ever shows here, I’m calling dibs,” Stephanie said, raising her hand. “Apart from the obvious issues, they sound like a catch.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to duel Damian for the right to even look his way.” Tim, always the pragmatic, corrected her misconception. “And get used to the idea of being chaperoned for the rest of your life.”
“It’s cute, though,” Dick mused, trying to lighten the mood. He already felt better for the sharing of the burden, the night already seemed brighter and the creampuff in his hands waited for no man. “He’s so protective and appreciative of his umm'i.”
Even the word itself was adorable and hearing it come out of the boy’s lips was something Dick cherished. Such a soft, delicate sound one would never expect from the hard-boiled eleven year old assassin.
Tim rolled his eyes at that. “I’d call that level of attachment unhealthy, but then, I wasn’t raised by murderers,” he noted, sipping his triple-shot, flat white with cinnamon because his taste buds were dead for the last two years.
“Aw, Timbers, you’re just grumpy, because he can kick your ass in hand to hand.”
“I am not! And he kicks yours, too, Steph!”
“You forget that I have no pride, brainiac.” Stephanie shrugged easily. “I can accept being substandard at some things. That’s super cute, if you ask me. Tiny little alpha baring his little fangs and trying to be all grown up and commanding.”
“It’s no less cute when it actually works,” Dick couldn't not chuckle. “You should see him at school, the kids don't know what to make of him apart from submitting and hoping for the best.”
“Aww, his own little pack.”
“Steph, it’s a pack of prepubescent pups controlled by a sociopathic assassin child, you should be scared more than anything.”
“Come on, Timmy, he’s not that bad.”
“You’re not the one he’s trying to herd, Dick.”
“He does it because he cares. He just wants to keep you safe and sound.”
Stephanie burst out laughing at that, powdered sugar spraying around her face. “What?! Are you for real?”
“Oh yeah,” Dick nodded sagely. “For some reason Damian is convinced that Tim will be gruesomely murdered by the end of the year and puts a lot of effort into trying to change his unfortunate fate. He took it on himself to train Timbo and it’s adorable, half-Karate Kid, half-Final Destination.”
Well, Tim was less than happy with the whole situation, but he was always somewhat lacking in the sense of humour department. It was a great shame, in Dick’s opinion.
“I have no idea why he does that!”
“Almost drowning because you forgot to pack your breather that one time certainly didn’t help.”
Tim moaned into his hands and that was the end of it. New intel was shared, filed, stepped over on the way to new important matters.
But, even so, Dick still found it concerning. His brain was trained to note and retain details, information, to put them together into a full picture, and what Damian had told them so far of his life and major players in it…it painted a very concerning picture.
Not only the assassin training thing, although that too was enough to boil Dick’s brain—but no, the other part seemed more important. The way al Ghul clan operated was not healthy in the slightest, certainly not a good environment for an omega.
A very young omega, from the sounds of it, fresh out of a traumatic experience. And Damian, born to such a distorted world, never having known what was normal and what wasn't. They’ve bonded, of course they did, because Dick could only imagine how damaged they both were, how desperately needing human connection.
He’d like to believe it was love. Had to believe it was. After all, Damian didn't talk about his own mother with the same kind of warmth as when he talked about his omega.
There was another thing that Dick had noticed about the kid.
Damian felt better in the presence of animals than humans. It wasn’t a surprise, but…it was heartbreaking, how telling it was. Everything about the kid was heartbreaking—from the way his eyes lit up whenever he was the centre of attention, to the way he tried too hard to be what his father needed him to be, no matter that Bruce himself didn't know what he wanted from his son most of the time apart from ‘happy and safe’, and both of those ships had sailed a long time ago.
The kid was lonely, that was clear, but his whole demeanour was too strange for other kids to befriend him. He was a child, but not. Childish pursuits didn't amuse him, he was too smart for his contemporaries and too immature for adults to take him seriously. He missed his omega fiercely and that Dick also understood, their pack wasn’t exactly good at providing comfort.
(Sometimes he feared the reason was that they were all too damaged for it; that if the jokes and quips, and downplaying the horrors and pain of their lives were ever removed, if a grain of genuine sadness was allowed to slip through the cracks there would be no coming back from that. Real comfort required one to acknowledge their pain fully and that was never allowed, they’d shatter.)
It was a strange thing to realise that while the kid was raised by a pair of psychopaths, he was also provided with more comfort and warmth than any of them. Post his parents’ deaths, Dick had learned to live on very little, to take what he could by initiating contact himself, even against his basic instincts, because emotional intimacy was so sparse. He’d learned to give it to others, to his friends and his family. After Jason’s…
After losing Jason, he‘d made sure to stay close, to be a part of the pack and make sure that any that came after him found themselves welcome and wanted. So there wouldn't ever be another child in this big, cold house feeling abandoned and rejected, thinking they have no one to turn to for help.
So that he never again stands over a gravestone, knowing deep in his bones that if only he’d stopped his tantrum to think about someone other than himself, paid more attention to a kid so desperately wanting to be loved...Bruce convinced himself that his fault laid in not being faster, not finding Jason earlier, before the bomb went off. And Dick didn't have the heart to tell him that it had started much earlier, that when Joker got his hands on the kid, it was already too late. That all Jason ever needed was love and all he got instead was a handed-down costume and all the issues that came with it.
Hindsight was great like that, especially when paired up with years of insight someone else never got to have.
Huh, he was thinking about Jason again. Recently it happened often—strangely enough, Damian kept doing things that reminded him of their lost little wing. Was it because he was also a small boy with a chip on his shoulder? That he was angry and lonely, and afraid to reach out?
After that first night when Dick came up from his argument with Bruce to find both Tim and Damian discussing disturbing things in Jason's old room, the door was never locked again. The kid was there often to borrow books and hide from Bruce – always respectful and tidy, as if he knew what the things left behind meant to Alfred and his father. More curious than resentful. As if he tried to carve himself a place in the pack out of the shadow that Jason had left behind.
And Dick knew he wasn’t the only one seeing the similarities, because there was this one time after a mission where he ended up in the Cave, tired and filthy, and in need of the comfort Alfred always provided with a disappointed look and a cup of hot soup. He was on the way to the showers when he was stopped by the sight of a small dark head poking over the armrest of the chair at the main console.
Damian, it seemed, fell asleep in the chair. Surrounded by books, a sketchbook open underneath his face (he was drooling all over it and Dick took about ten photos), a cup of cocoa in easy reach. Dick wanted to wake the kid up, the Cave was no place for a nap, but Bruce stopped him.
Dick watched the man he called father stare at his blood son for a few long minutes, the absence of the cowl exposing mixed feelings running across that hardened face—affection was the most prominent one, the worry was next, the third one was… grief?
Bruce looked at him, his eyes shaded and lips pulled down. “Sometimes, I look at him and it’s like I’m seeing Jason’s ghost.”
And want it or not, Dick couldn't disagree.
Not even a month later, he had popped in to visit the Manor just to be confronted with a case of acute favouritism. The case barked at him from the foyer, clumsy and tripping over its too-big-for-his-body paws, and later drooled all over Dick’s chin, when he refused to unhand it.
“This is so not fair!” He wailed in Bruce’s office, momentarily forgetting that he wasn’t ten anymore. “You never let me get a dog!”
Bruce looked tired and already regretting his decision, which was hilarious on a completely new level. “Will you let me work in peace if I get you one now?” He asked, rubbing his temples. Uh-oh, it had to be the end of the fiscal year for Wayne Tech.
“It doesn't count now,” Dick pouted. “I knew I should’ve asked Clark! He’d never fail a child in need!”
“Get. Out. Dick.”
Honestly, the manners of some people.
Dick left the office, making sure not to slam the door—the paperwork was enough of a punishment in his opinion—and carried his boon back downstairs, to the kitchen, where Alfred already waited on him with a cup of tea and a very amused expression.
“So, what’s this boy’s name?” Dick asked, setting the wiggling puppy back on the floor.
Dick sucked in a breath and released it slowly. The Dane was only as tall as his knees. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on a baby,” he noticed.
“A heavy legacy to live up to, yes.” Alfred agreed easily. “Now, Master Richard, white or granary?”
“You have any cereal in this place?”
“Granary it is, then.”
Shakespeare, eh? Who would have thought? Well, Dick guessed he had to be happy that the dog wasn’t named Mr Darcy.
The year and a half that passed from the moment Damian had dropped into their lives was a fast one. A lot of things happened, of course, vigilante life was never partial to letting anyone catch a breather, but all of it remained encapsulated by the boy’s presence in the pack. That was the main focus of the family. The kid changed the dynamic they had before, his presence changed Bruce in small and subtle ways. It changed Dick, too. He was visiting almost constantly, whenever his day-job allowed. He didn't remember a time when he was so eager to drive to Gotham.
It was like coming back home, even if he never left for good, reintroducing himself to the pack that he never eschewed. His relationship with Tim had always been good, they were always open with each other, but now that Dick was so much closer he could see his successor struggling with certain things that he wasn’t aware of previously. Tim was a very introverted young man and, just like his mentor, seemed to believe that he’ll able to solve all of his problems of only he managed to bury then deep enough. Compartmentalisation was a good skill to have, but a terrible lifestyle.
Dick could offer a non-judgemental ear and understanding. He was well acquainted with the curse of an older sibling—the shock to the system that the introduction of a new pup caused, the feeling of being replaced, usurped. And he was even better acquainted with the mental black hole that was working with Bruce Wayne, the emotionally constipated alpha-figure that was never impressed enough, never expressive enough to make their sacrifices feel appropriately rewarding.
Tim needed to feel appreciated. Just like every single one of them, he was just a normal boy looking for a nice solid pack bond and parental love, and Dick could not fault him for feeling like these needs weren’t fulfilled. He hoped that Damian’s slow integration would carry on, that Tim would be blessed with the good younger brother that Dick found in him. That he would be patient enough to recognise a boon when given one, unlike Dick was back in the day.
But Dick wasn’t blind enough not to notice the biggest issue at hand—doubly so, because Tim was doing his best not to notice that he was beginning to outgrow Robin. Slowly, but surely, the outfit was starting to stifle him, he was becoming so much more than just a sidekick to Batman and Dick knew it wasn’t long before the scaly panties wouldn’t fit him anymore. He’d been there, he could sympathise.
They talked about it, Dick made sure they did, because Bruce was more than a bit useless in that aspect and this was Robin business. He forced the conversation and made sure Tim understood the reality of his situation and admitted his needs. The Titans were good for him, Dick was all in favour of him pursuing a leadership position.
“But Batman needs Robin,” Tim insisted, because that was one thing they both believed in full heartedly. “He needs me.”
“He needs you to be happy and satisfied with your life,” Dick countered after a moment. “And you need to reach your full potential, Timmy. Once you outgrow the pixie boots, there’s no coming back.” It was bittersweet, but it was the truth and they both knew it.
“You think…he will let the demon child...?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But you’re both strong and so far you’ve been doing a stellar job, Timmy.” Dick winked, hugging his little brother and ruffling his hair. “But you’re too good to be stuck playing second fiddle your whole life, Mr CEO.”
“Hey, that was just one year!”
“My gosh, you're already a more advanced human being than Bruce will ever be. A perfect baby alpha coming into his own!”
“Dick, stop that!”
Dick made sure to appropriately annoy his little bro, who wasn’t so little anymore, until he had Timmy gasping and leaning on his shoulder, for a moment forgetting that he’s an awkward introvert. People always told him that he’s a special kind of alpha and Dick took pride in it; not like they had any omegas in the family to lean on.
But the conversation also turned his attention to the issue of the next Robin—because as much as Dick would like to put the position to rest (because now he was an adult and understood how stupid it was in the first place, how dangerous, how it changed his life and stole Jason’s,) he knew that at this point it was an impossible dream. He also knew what he’d prefer for Damian prefer. The kid was still a vicious little beast with altogether too many bloody ideas in his head; a short tenure at Batman’s side, helping people and being the light in the dark, had a chance to do wonders for his budding morality.
Fortunately, that was something he could leave to Bruce to sort out.
The matter ceased to be important. Two months later, Bruce was gone.
It’s was hard without the old man.
Once the time for mourning passed—and it passed way too quickly, but what choice did they have?—it was time to roll up their sleeves and start to pick up the pieces. For Dick it meant embracing what he’d swore off from a long time ago, something he never wished to even touch.
The cowl was a heavy weight.
But that wasn’t the only thing he had to carry – and it all was like some sort of a horrific deja-vu. Except, this time it wasn’t just Dick and Alfred who were affected by the death in the family, this time Dick couldn’t throw a tantrum and leave to lick his wounds in peace. This time he was the head of the pack, he was the one they all relied on to keep them from falling apart.
Gotham should be his first order of business, logically, the Mission had to be carried out. But the Mission had already robbed him of a brother and a father, there was no way Dick was allowing it take anyone else.
The first order of updated business was working out a new structure for the pack.
He returned to Gotham. He still planned to keep an eye on New York, but now Gotham had to be his first priority. It awoke anger in him, the same anger that ruled his decisions years ago when he realized that Bruce always expected the same from him—to put Gotham first. He raged and rebelled back then, fought with all he had to free himself from that sewer. Only to throw himself into another one.
It was inevitable, in a sense, for the city that poisoned too much of his life to drag him back, kicking and screaming, into her embrace.
When he was a kid, when he left for the first time, he vaguely expected Jason to pick up after the old man years down the line. Jason, who was born there, even more Gotham’s child than Bruce, who had his golden tower to separate him from the worst the city had to offer. Jason loved Gotham and empathised with its victims more than anyone, Dick had hoped…but that was an impossible dream, only proving how removed from reality he was as a kid—Jason was fourteen at the time! What was he thinking?
Now, he understood Bruce to a degree. How do you wrangle a pack of kids into any sort of order to keep them all alive on the streets at night? Thank God Barbara had Steph under her wing, Dick had his hands full with the other two.
Damian was despondent and that had to be addressed first. Dick was mourning the father that raised him and it was hard enough, but Damian just barely had a father at all by the time he was taken from him and now he sulked around the mansion, angry and confused. Dick had the exact opposite of fun trying to explain to him why they can’t go avenge Bruce and didn’t think that the explanation stuck all that well until his growled out order.
Dick hated using his alpha voice, but that seemed to be the only thing the kid responded to.
And Tim…well, Tim reacted as well as one would expect—the introverted pup closed himself off even more, seemingly lost without Bruce’s lead.
That was the first thing Dick had to fix.
“So, Damian, would you like to be Robin one day?”
The boys looked at him over their respective breakfasts as if Dick was suddenly speaking in tongues.
“Are you firing Drake?”
“I’m thinking more of an apprenticeship, you working for a bit under Robin’s wing, learning the trade...”
Both Tim and Damian looked profoundly betrayed. He was doing great.
“I thought we’ve already established I’m superior to Drake in skill.”
“And I thought we established that he can’t be released to run free, Gotham’s criminal element may never recover.”
Tim was egging him on, cute. They had this conversation before, didn't they? Tim seemed willing to share... and Damian desperately needed something to engage him now, to hopefully inspire him and have him stay.
Dick was under no illusions that with his father gone, there was anything keeping the boy with them. The alpha pup had a home to return to, had a mother and his umm'i, whom he missed very much, and a kingdom to inherit at some point in the future. What kept him in Gotham, really? There was no reason why he should not return home – apart from Dick breaking out in hives at the sole thought of the kid returning to that hell hole. To the world where a murder was par the course and children that could barely walk were trained in the art of slitting throats. They had barely domesticated Damian, forsaking him now was akin to giving up on him.
“It’s just something for the two of you to think about,” Dick shrugged and returned to his omelette. “I’m not used to the cowl yet, I could use an additional pair of eyes to watch my back.”
The worst thing was that it wasn’t hard at all to slip into the right persona—to impersonate Batman, his mannerisms and style, to even successfully copy his voice. Dick was the oldest of Bruce’s birds, he knew the old man through and through. A game of pretending was easy.
But was it all he wanted it to be? A game of pretend—for how long? Bruce was not coming back and Batman could not reasonably retire in this century… this was Dick’s life now and he didn't want his life to be this. He fought his way out of this future by the time he was eighteen, returning to it now seemed like a personal betrayal. He felt the cowl weighing him down night after night.
“No wonder, your fighting style is much different than your father’s, Master Richard. If I may, I’ve presumed to work out a few slight adjustments that may help you out with balance.”
God bless Alfred Pennyworth, because the man was a wizard.
“Nice of you to assume so, sir, however, I must assure you I’m still waiting for my letter.”
The first outing with both boys at his back turned out to not be a disaster, actually. Not much of one, at least.
Damian was violent, sure, and impatient, and his fighting style was horrifyingly effective, and he treated orders more like suggestions. The kid was obviously used to working alone and wasn’t that a scary thought? How many ops was he on by the time he was ten?
Thankfully, Tim was there to interfere where necessary and in the end, no one died and there was only one broken bone—the finger of a thug who made a mistake assuming that a kid accompanying Batman would be an easy target
“We have to come up with a costume for you, little D,” Dick mused when they were back in the Cave. He ruffled the kid’s hair, mussed under the hood he wore on patrol. “So you can blend in better.”
Damian slapped his hand away and critically measured Tim’s Robin’s suit and then pointedly looked down at the dark-coloured assassin costume that came with him form Nanda Parbat. “I seem to be blending in adequately. Why would I want to exchange stealth for that gaudy circus getup, again?”
“Hey, nothing wrong with a bit of circus!”
The look he got was ice cold. “This explains much, Richard.”
Tim was the one to snort at him, the traitor! “You don't know the half of it!”
“Ganging up on me already? I should have seen that coming.”
“Not the world’s greatest detective are you, Dickie?”
No, not even close.
There was a lot to do and Dick was grateful for it, the pack kept itself busy and carried on as he was feeling out his steps, his place under the cowl, his growing comfort with becoming a designated mentor figure.
He considered moving, taking their operation to the Penthouse where there were no ghosts to follow his steps—but he couldn't. This was his home, this was Alfred’s home and the place where Damian finally felt wanted. It would be an unnecessary expense and relocating a pack was a stressful endeavour, no one needed that now on top of everything else.
But the Cave needed updating if Dick was to rule it now. It seemed...healthy, to start with a bit of housekeeping, the minimal change of the scenery to lighten the shadows gathering in the corners like old mold. The case with Jason’s suit was the first thing to disappear and Dick could swear that everyone in the Manor breathed a sigh of relief. One less ghost to stare at his back and count his failures.
Dick and Alfred cleared away the dusty artefacts and modernized the Cave as much as they dared. Bruce was always on top of the technological progress, of course, but he was also staunchly traditional in some aspects that, as time passed, started to get in the way more than anything.
All in all, once they finished, it was easier to breathe.
Two months later, Tim left.
“I know something isn’t right with this case, Dick. I just know…I need to find him!”
Dick tried to present a voice of reason, even knowing that he was fighting a losing battle. “I need you here Tim! I need you by my side.”
“I will be useless at your side! Useless like that…I know we missed something, Dick, I just know and I need to figure it out.” Tim’s eyes burned with the rare kind of conviction of a hound that caught the scent and wasn’t going to let it go. “Please, Dick.”
In the end, who was he to hold back someone who wanted to leave?
“Just be careful and stay in contact,” Dick muttered into the tangle of brown hair, scenting the teen. “Please Tim, if anything happens…”
Tim don't turn away from the rough nuzzle, or from the tongue that ran over his eyelid and cheek, he was always a patient kind of an alpha. “I will. You too. Take care of the little monster. Titans are at your beck and call, if you need them”
“Take Kon with you.”
“...I’ll think about it.”
Tim left to follow his intuition and things were harder from that point on. Damian was not ready to become a Robin and Dick wasn’t ready to be his sole parental figure. Thank God for Alfred and Stephanie, who were surprisingly willing to come in with a helping hand from time to time. Dick could call in Cass for additional help, but that wouldn't be fair to her. She was making a life for herself in Hong Kong, he couldn't just uproot her like that. He had Kate and Barbara to help if things got dicey and the Titans on speed dial if necessary.
Dick was going to be alright, he was fine. They were going to be fine. Gotham was going to survive that crisis too, like all the others before it.
He only needed to focus on being the best Batman he could be and helping Damian find his inner Robin.
Tim had left and Dick tried not to take it personally.
No one had to know that he failed miserably.
He was the one to make the executive decision to introduce Damian to the Kents.
It was two months into their shared tenure when it finally dawned on Dick that the kid had no real friends apart from his dog, and no outlet for his emotions apart from said dog and drawing. Not the best sources of catharsis, in Dick’s humble opinion.
“So, they have a farm.”
“And how does that concern me?”
Damian looked his snootiest yet, as he sat in the passenger seat of the SUV—arms crossed and his cute button-nose pointing up. It might have to do with either the fact that Dick suggested he ride in the back (which, okay, he knew better, this whole unexpected parenting gig was messing with his head) or with the fact that Damian didn't like surprises at the end of sudden road trips. Or the fact that Titus was stuck in the cage installed in the back of the car like a good travelling doggy, happy with his rubber bone and generally excited in a simple-minded way Dick envied.
“Well, on that farm lives a dog,” Dick revealed cheerfully. “So I thought you could take Titus there, for a playdate. He could use some canine company.”
“Tt, and I guess the fact that they have a son roughly my age is just coincidental?”
“Absolutely,” he lied with a smile. “I didn't even remember about Jon until you mentioned him just now.”
“Shows how much he’s worth.”
The truth was that Clark having a young kid was only half of the reason why Dick decided to drive them all the way to the small Midwestern town, instead of using the Batplane to get there under one hour. The other half was that they needed to get out of the Manor and Gotham, and clear their heads in a nice sunny place surrounded by nice sunny people before the city swallowed their souls. Dick refused to let the Mission took anyone else from him. He was slowly finding out what kind of a Batman he wanted to be and one thing was certain—it was not that kind.
The landscape on the side of the highway grew monotonous with never-ending fields of corn the closer they got to their destination. About an hour away, Dick sighed and turned to the sullen boy by his side.
“Please be nice, Dami. I happen to like Clark and will be very disappointed if you lose me emergency transportation in his strong manly arms. And I will be really angry if you lose me his Ma’s cherry pie.” He gave the kid a hard look. “And I bet Titus will be very disappointed if you lose him further playdates.”
“You’re laying it on thick, Richard…very well, I’ll attempt to behave myself in a manner acceptable to a simple-minded pleb.”
Eh, how was it possible to love someone so much you wanted to strangle them where they stood? Or rather, sat?
“Thank you, little D, that means a lot to me.”
“Only because your standards are tragically low,” Damian scoffed at him and unbuckled his belt to climb into the back seat, apparently happy to spend the rest of the journey in the company of his dog.
Good enough for Dick. They were still trying to find their stride together, as Batman and Robin, it wasn’t easy, but Dick believed they would get there, together.
The visit proved to be a resounding success. Three days later Damian complained about Jon (the damn immature alien!) all the way back home, only stopping for a breath when Dick pushed a forkful of Martha’s cherry pie at him. The kid has been taught to chew with his mouth shut, like a proper human being, but he glared impressively every time Dick made choo-choo sounds.
“I won't wear that,” Damian scoffed at the holographic display case where the latest model of Robin’s uniform slowly swirled around. “If I wanted to look like a traffic signal I would have attempted to join the alien in Metropolis.”
“Come on, little D, it's not that bad.” Dick’s attempt to ruffle his hair was avoided. The brat was getting better at it. “At least this one has pants.”
The wide-eyed stare of pure disbelief was a thing to behold. “You’re joking.”
“Nope,” Dick grinned, unabashed. “The shorts really happened. It was just for the Summer, though, nights in the city are kind of stifling when you're a kid flipping across rooftops. I have no idea how the old man could stand it zipped up to his ears in Kevlar and rubber.”
“You will have a chance to acquaint yourself with the experience soon.”
Damn, the kid was right, spring was coming to an end. Dick hoped that Alfred’s promised adjustments to the cowl would come first. Speaking of...
“We can fix your suit here and there,” he agreed. “It’s better it adjusts to your style than the other way around. But I’d like to keep at least a bit of the original colour, if you don’t mind.”
Damian’s expression turned calculating when he looked away from the display. “Sentimental reasons?”
“You could say that. My first costume was inspired by my mom, so was the name.” Dick shrugged.
“Yeah, that was her name for me. My little Robin, she used to say.” It was so long ago…and he still missed her so damn much. He missed both of them.
“I always thought that Father...”
“Came up with it, eh? Come on, Dami, the most imaginative thing he could’ve come up with was Batman. If I left it up to him, I’d be a Batboy.” He could have imagined it, but he thought that Damian giggled under his breath at that. It was a fleeting impression, but Dick held on to it. “Oh no, watch out, it’s the Batman and Batboy in their Batplane throwing batarangs! Yeah, no, that would be downright humiliating,” he admitted as if his appreciation for puns wasn’t a factor in his own naming convention.
The little sullen prince chuckled. Good. They were definitely getting somewhere.
The new Robin suit, after Damian and Alfred were done with it, was the most durable one yet, Dick had to begrudgingly admit; it had a double layer of armour on the torso and a new design that covered the wearer almost completely—including a hood and a pair of sturdy steel-toed combat boots. Dick would never feel comfortable in it, it was heavier than his own preference and less flexible than he was used to as a kid, but Damian’s fighting style was more subdued than Dick’s acrobatic mish-mash—the kid fought closer to the ground and relied on surprise more than anything. He wasn’t there to be a colourful distraction for their enemies, but to strike from the shadows when they least expected it, creating a diversion for Batman and taking out criminals at the same time in a way more permanent than a kick to the shins and a snappy retort.
Dick understood that to a degree, approved of the reasoning—Robin should have never been put in the middle of the fray.
Their partnership was slowly coming together even if assassin training was a hard thing to shake off. Dick was aware of the difficulties—they had a very similar problem with Cass for the first few months after she joined them on patrols. Thankfully, she didn't have a vicious bone in her body, but all these dangerous, ingrained habits were there and Dick knew she struggled to reign them in at the beginning, to slow down before her hits connected. To hurt, but not harm.
For Damian, whose every bone was vicious and vengeful, reigning in was also hard—doubly so, for the fact that he was so much smaller than his opponents and had to hit hard to make any sort of impact to begin with. It was a tough balancing act and Dick did his best to help him through it.
He was optimistic.
Maybe too optimistic.
The fact that Damian didn't murder anyone in cold blood for over a year when he had lived at the Manor made Dick believe the worst was behind them. That the boy was changing for the better under the nurturing influence of his new pack and the numbing influence of the higher society he was forced to interact with. If there was anyone able to break the will of a trained assassin, it was Mr. Winterspoon and his three spoiled brats’ attempts to pull Damian into their inner circle of wealthy wankfuckery (Tim’s words, not Dick’s) and they were still breathing so, yeah, Dick was hopeful.
He should have known that it took something more specific to break the boy’s composure. That it had to be something that hit close to home for him. Something all the worse for the fact it could not be fixed with a punch to the face.
Not that Damian didn't try. Not that Dick wasn’t tempted to let him.
But the beaten up pup they saved from further abuse had to be their priority—it was barely five years old from the looks of it, dreadfully thin and malnourished, covered in red welts and dirt.
Damin was the one to hear its thin cries and take interest in them enough to investigate the dilapidated building on the outskirts of the warehouse district they’d been staking out that night. Dick, knowing the boy’s affinity for animals, allowed the detour. He expected to find a cat trapped somewhere under the trash or in the rafters, that needed help—what they actually found was a squalid one-room flat where a child was being beaten up by its mother.
Dick didn't allow horror and disdain to freeze him in place, because Damian was already moving, bursting in through the window and delivering a powerful kick to the woman’s stomach. She was thin herself, nearly skeletal, and the tell-tale trail of scars on her bare arms was a dead giveaway of why. Dick paid her little mind once she slumped in the corner, weeping, instead focusing all of his attention on the small body gasping for breath in his arms and getting help for the pup as soon as possible.
“Robin, secure her and search the flat, there may be more children around. I’ll call the authorities,” he ordered in Batman’s calm, even tone, even as his heart thundered in his chest. Beating up crooks was so much easier than this, but the could do it, he had the training to deal with situations just like this one, thanks to his police work.
The child (a little boy from the cursory look-over) was alive, but barely held onto conscience and was so terribly, terribly thin. Welts and bruises covered his arms and what Dick could see of his back through the gaps in the thin pajama top, and his left wrist was swollen, probably broken.
It took a while to calm the pup, a lot of murmuring and rocking, and reassuring rumbles from the bottom of Dick's throat. At some point, he peeled off one of the scent-concealing patches from the side of his neck and allowed the child to nestle into it, to feel the scrap of safety that the scent of a friendly alpha could give. Only for a little while, until the police arrived and he could hand the pup over to the child protection agent. Then, once that was taken care of, Dick went after his own pup.
He found Robin on the roof of a building on the other side of the street, with a good view inside of a ruined window, but shaded enough to remain hidden as he observed the proceedings of the police. Dick dropped next to the boy, noticing the tense set of his shoulders and the way his gaze unwaveringly followed the woman being lead out of the building. He rested his hand on Damian's shoulder, wishing he knew what to say that wasn't just an empty reassurance.
“It's alright now, the pup is safe.”
Damian stepped from underneath his hand without a word, the eyes never leaving the window.
It was back in the Cave when he finally spoke of the event. They were undressing in the changing room, once Alfred was reassured that they don't need medical attention and were allowed to retire. Dick sat on the low bench, fighting with the clasps on his boots, the cowl and the cape already discarded. He watched the kid from the corner of his eye, though, noting that the tension had not left him, even as he stepped out of his own uniform. When Damian spoke, he was prepared.
“She's an omega,” the kid voiced the thought Dick vainly wished he didn't pick up on. He held himself straight and tense, like a warrior—like an al Ghul. “She's an omega and she hurt him. Her own kit…what sort of an omega harms their own children?”
Dick had no answer to that. Nothing simple or easily digestible. Instead, he reached out and pulled Damian to his chest, surprised that the pup let him. “We did all we could, the police will take care of it now. The child will be safe and the woman will get the help she needs…”
That, in hindsight, was the wrong thing to say, judging by how the small shoulders tensed under his hands.
“Oh, she will need help after I’m done with her.”
“Dami…” Dick did his best to hold on to the boy, but Damian was quick and agile, and slipped away from him as if his body was made of water. Fuck. “Robin!” An alpha growl slipped out and it was barely enough to make the pup stop in his tracks, keep him in the room.
“Why should I?” Damian’s voice was tight as the set of his shoulders and his eyes blazed with rage. “This creature does not deserve leniency!”
“We don't know the full story.”
Your own mother was no better—he wanted to say, but didn’t. This situation was eerily similar, but not the same. Damian was distressingly blind to the abuse he himself had suffered in his youth, true, but Dick suspected that it was the one difference in these two scenarios that got to the boy to the point of losing his composure like that.
He was proven right with Damian’s next words. “The story is that an omega hurting their own kit does not deserve to breathe!” And the weight of conviction behind them still tightened something in Dick’s chest.
“It’s for the judge to decide the fitting punishment, not for us,” he pointed out calmly.
“So we may as well let her out to roam the streets and find a new victim!”
“What do you propose we do, then? Kill her? How will that help the situation?”
“No, death teaches no lessons.” The echo of Ra’s spoke through the kid. “An arm should suffice, for now.”
Jesus. “No, it won't. But it's your decision, little D, if you want to remain by my side. That's the condition of being Robin, we do not hurt people,” he said, only to be met with a derisive chuckle. And now it was Talia.
“We serve plenty of hurt every night, Richard.”
“Not on purpose.”
“So what’s the point in all this?!” Damian pointed at Dick—no, at the insignia on his chest that encapsulated everything around them. “For a group that wants to clean up this city, you’re all awfully eager to step back and drop the responsibility on the laughably ineffective law enforcement!”
That—that raw anger seemed alien.
“We do not kill,” Dick’s voice rang with conviction, the one certain thing he had, the one thing he held onto no matter what.
“You don’t seem to know how to take care of matters, either! Spineless cowards!”
“How brave is killing, Damian? What kind of courage do you need to end someone’s life? It’s the easiest option to take!”
“How would you know, Richard?”
Dick’s jaw snapped shut fast enough that his teeth clicked, the building temper fizzled out like a blown-out candle, because he forgot…for a moment there he forgot who he was talking to. Forgot why these green eyes were so flat and cold. That the little entitled brat was just a surface layer of his little brother, the only thing sturdy enough to hide the depth of darkness underneath.
If they spoke of the weight of taking a life—Dick was hopelessly outmatched, wasn’t he?
And a hypocrite on top of that.
“You know nothing, none of you does,” the boy’s voice turned vicious. “All you do is hide behind your moral high ground when the bodies pile up around you! Father decided that fear is effective and you all got in line, but then did nothing to cultivate it! If I took off her hand today, then maybe the next one will think twice before raising their against another kit!”
“I am not him,” Dick stated harshly. “My rules are different.”
“And yet you’re both perfectly willing to sacrifice children to keep your hands clean!”
“Damian, that’s enough!” He really didn't want to growl, but the baby alpha was standing up to him in clear challenge, with teeth bared and eyes staring up.
“Will I get my own little display after you make that choice as Father did in Ethiopia?!”
The tightness in Dick’s stomach suddenly opened into a gaping chasm that swallowed all his organs. “How do you…?” This was not possible, this wasn’t something anyone had the right to know, and Dick only did because Bruce was just a man and needed to unburden his spirit every once in a while. It was a dark night for both when that confession came to light… a night for just the two of them. “You don’t know what happened there, you little brat!”
“I know that Father made a choice to leave his kit to die!”
“It wasn’t…it wasn’t like that.” Dick hated that his voice caught. “He didn't…”
“I left him behind, with that woman…I chose to go and left him to die…”
He stopped, took a deep breath, pushed to centre himself, because this was familiar in a horrible way—this, Batman and Robin standing in the Cave, shouting at each other, hurting one another. Something he never wanted to relive - especially from the other end. Something he swore to himself never to become.
Once more he stopped Damian from storming out of the room by laying his hands on small shoulders—still so small—and gentled his voice until he purged all the anger from it, leaving nothing but gentleness.
“Damian, where is this coming from? Why now?” he asked.
The pup didn't escape him this time. Maybe he was just as tired as Dick was, just as tangled up inside. Maybe seeing an omega not being…for once, being the monster, brought home his own issues, his own fears. Dick had no real idea how his life looked before he came to Gotham, he only had theories based on scraps of knowledge and assumptions. It was possible that he was wrong about everything, but he didn't think so.
“This clan is broken.” When Damian finally spoke, the words were quiet, forced past the teeth with obvious difficulty. The boy did not raise his eyes nor turned his head towards the older alpha. “I was meant to come here and familiarise myself with you, learn from you all to one day take over. But there’s nothing to learn and nothing I want to own.”
“I know that you think Mother and Grandfather were cruel in raising me the way they did, Richard. That is your right. But I was always safe in the knowledge that at the very least they’d avenge me if I fell…that Mother thought of me highly enough to chose me. I can’t trust any of you to do the same.”
If his heart wasn’t already bleeding for the boy, it would now. “Of course, you can, little D,” Dick whispered, anguished.
“No.” Damian shook his head. “You’re very good at talking about the “pack” being important and using physical contact to enforce the idea, but if push came to shove, you’ll keep your hands clean.”
Damian left, slipped from underneath his numb hands, and Dick didn't try to stop him again.
He changed the rest of the way as if in a haze, unfeeling hands pulling away cloth and armour, leaving his skin naked, vulnerable and soft, shivering in the cool air permeating the Cave. The hot shower helped to relax the tired muscles but did little to aid the mind that circled around one thought. One idea he could not shake off.
Damian didn't trust them—didn't trust Dick, no matter how much he wanted to. And no matter how he came by the knowledge of what happened in Ethiopia (it wasn’t hard to believe that Ra’s had eyes all over the globe), he was right in a sense. There was a reason to distrust them—physical manifestations of which were a lonely gravestone and an empty case that used to house a ghost.
Because, the core of the matter was that Jason didn't have to die. The truth obscured for so long by the guilt and anger and the need to avoid further casualties. By the cautionary tale of a reckless bird that flew too high, until the sun burned its wings—a tale that all took to heart at face value and held on to for almost a decade.
When the truth was: once there was a hatchling with a broken wing that was taken in and expected to fly like all the others. How could they pretend to be surprised when the young bird plummeted to the ground?
Jason’s death came because of a wrong choice he had no hand in.
And now it returned to haunt Dick—in the person of a pup with cold eyes and the same broken wing they all have been steadily refusing to acknowledge.
What would Bruce do in this situation?
Well, he knew, he had lived through more than one argument with the man. Bruce would go on patrol. Leave Dick to stew and rage, allow him to calm down, get over himself—and then they’d talk it out like… well, adults.
But Dick was not Bruce and Damian was not him, and that method only ever worked because Dick wanted it to work, not because it was easy.
He found Damian in Jason’s old bedroom—Dick wasn’t surprised anymore, the kid wisely adapted that room as his ‘safe space’, knowing that most of the pack tended to avoid it.
This time Dick forced himself to cross the threshold, walked up to the bed and sat down on the edge of it, careful enough not to disturb the lump of a pup curled up around one of the two pillows. A memory struck him suddenly as if someone waved a faded polaroid in front of his eyes; Jason had two pillows on his bed, because he used to hug one during sleep.
Damian’s hair was coarse under Dick’s finders and the pup tensed under the caress, but didn't react otherwise, didn’t turn around.
He didn’t know where to look – every corner of the room was full of sorrow: the shelves full of books that would never be read, the wardrobe with the door cracked just a notch, full of clothes never to be worn. The desk full of knick-knacks and little secrets gathered by a young boy who never got to outgrow them. So Dick focused his attention on the living pup by his side, the one he could still try to save.
“Speak your part, Richard, I wish to retire soon,” Damian mumbled into the pillow.
Dick swallowed once, twice. It was hard to put his thoughts in order and he tended to ramble when nervous on top of that, but that was the last thing they needed now.
“Gotham is a sewer,” he started, running his fingers through the kid’s short dark curls. “And the longer you tread through it…it starts to chip at you, piece by piece, until there's nothing left. It's like working for the police, it's no glorious battle; for every success, we have ten cases that fall through, because of lack of evidence, or people being too afraid to testify, or the trail just going cold…and there's nothing I can do about it, not on this side of the law, that's why I put on the mask.”
He swallowed again, throat suddenly parched, but didn't dare to stop, because Damian was listening, he could feel it in the boy’s stillness.
“But it's the same deal, you can never do enough. And it hurts until you start drowning in that helplessness and killing starts to look like a viable option like the best option left.” God, didn't he know it? After Blockbuster, after... “Except, people are just people and these things never end, Dami, it only ever escalates and soon enough you find yourself forgetting which side is right and where you're standing. Until someone comes for you, because you've killed their father, mother or a child, and now you're the one being hunted by a person behind the mask. It's a dark life, Dami, and if there are no limits you won't cross…you get swallowed by it.
“And Bruce…you think that if he ever crossed that line that he'd ever stop? He'd find a perfectly logical excuse to keep going, to keep purging this city and the world, and no one would ever know that he's pulling the strings until it was too late.” Dick took a deep breath, exhausted in a way physical exertion could never reach. “This is a very tight rope we’re all walking here.”
Damian still wasn’t looking at him, maybe because he didn't agree or because he couldn't disagree. How simple his life had to be until this point, Dick thought, how narrow and ordered, living without regrets—being raised to believe that regret was a weakness…
But then he gave himself a mental slap in the face, because this was a kid trained to kill ever since he could walk, if there was anyone in this mansion whose life was easy, it surely wasn’t Damian.
“Yeah, the hypocrisy is striking,” Dick admitted quietly. “To think that we can protect everyone, when it's usually the innocent who pay the toll if we fail. But isn't it hypocrisy to think that we can try to better the world by picking and choosing who doesn't belong here, when the innocent will pay for our every mistake?” He knew he sounded desperate, but…well, he was, desperate for the boy to hear him, to understand where he’s coming from. For that budding spark of shaky morality to keep lighting the way for him.
“You have a lot of words, Richard.” When Damian finally spoke, his voice was devoid of emotions, and when he finally turned around to look at the older alpha, his posture as stiff as it was when he’d first arrived in this city. Dick wanted to cry seeing all of the progress they’d made gone, just like that. “But answer me this. Would you kill in self-defence? You’re a policeman, as I understand, and they have no issue with that.”
God, of course he wouldn't pull his punches, the kid was raised by Talia. More importantly, Dick owed him an honest answer. “I don't know, Dami.” He shrugged. “I’m lucky to have skills and experience that puts me way above the standard Police training. I can’t tell you what I’d do in a situation before it happens, but I’d try everything I can to avoid bloodshed. On both sides.”
“Hm.” Damian was looking at him with a thoughtful wrinkle between his eyebrows, raising slowly on one elbow to make himself less vulnerable. “Would you kill to defend someone else? Someone… good?”
It was a telling thing that he didn't choose to say ‘innocent’. With the way these green eyes found Dick’s and their gaze sharpened like a laser point, he knew that whatever came out of Damian’s lips next would go for his throat—and that Dick’s answer would decide how their relationship would look from then onwards.
He was right, because when Damian pointed to the bedside table Dick’s stomach gave a painful lurch even before his eyes rested on the dusty picture frame.
“It’s like a shrine for a ghost, this room,” the boy’s voice was level, but strangely hushed with gentle reverence. “People in this house worship it even if they can barely cross the threshold. I have observed you all for a time and came to conclusion that it’s because of the guilt that you can’t face it. But you’ve obviously felt something for that Robin, something that put him above simply a Good Soldier.” It was unreal, how much this child reminded Dick of his grandfather and father at the same time. “His death had touched you in some way.”
“Of course it did!” Dick pushed through his tightening throat. “He was my...”
“Yes, your Little Wing.” A nod. Then, a whisper. “If you could bring him back—stop him from dying, save the boy from being beaten to death with a crowbar... would you kill the clown?”
Dick started to laugh, but it ended up in a sob. He covered his eyes with a hand, because yes, the hypocrisy in this family was staggering.
“I already did, Dami. I already did.”
I am alive:O
The story is growing and I had to cut this chapter here - there's just a few scenes I will make into a 4th and the final chapter of this instalment:)
Great thanks to the amazing m00nslippers who did amazing job of betaing this mess:)
Something changed after that confession. In retrospect, it made sense–what else could get to the boy other than the darkest moment of Dick’s life? Damian took that brutal honesty in stride and a spark of respect appeared in his eyes when he looked at Dick from then on. As if they were now connected in some sort of gruesome camaraderie, an understanding between two murderers.
It took Dick a few days to return to mental form after the shock of dredging up that painful memory, but it was worth it. Damian cooled down considerably–the idea that Dick had attempted to kill the Joker seemed to calm him down, build a shaky bridge over the chasm of distrust the pup harboured towards his family. That Dick was willing and ready to avenge Jason, Babs and Joker’s countless nameless victims, seemed to be enough to mark him as trustworthy, as if allowing himself to step into the darkest pit of rage and despair somehow proved that Dick was capable of caring.
It was a chilling idea, but the point was moot. Joker disappeared without a trace over five years ago and Dick didn't have to think about him anymore. In is head, the monster was dead–maybe karma finally caught up to him and he pissed off someone with a much shorter fuse than Bruce. Maybe someone took justice into their own hands, tired of the constant back and forth the Batman and Joker had going on? Maybe one victim was one too many...
It didn’t matter. Dick wanted to believe that Joker was dead and couldn’t force himself to feel bad about it.
A full year didn’t manage to pass before Tim did the impossible and brought Bruce back to them. It was a wondrous thing, to have the man back. For a week Dick floated around in a state of shock and mild dissociation; on one hand ecstatic to have his alpha was back, on another unable to accept it as permanent. He should, their family made something of a business out of defying the odds, but it took time to get used to seeing Bruce at the breakfast table again, after so many months of staring at an empty chair.
He knew the rest of the pack had a similar problem, but together they overcame it in a somewhat graceful manner. Alfred, the ever level-headed old beta, wouldn’t allow for anything else under his roof, even from Damian…
“Of course, I am happy that father is back. Don’t confuse healthy suspicion with apprehension, Richard.”
“Suspicion? Don’t you trust Tim?”
“Only as far as I can throw him. However, it’s not about Drake’s ability.”
“What is it about, then?”
“I’ve seen… As you well know, I’ve been raised around men coming back to life. It hasn’t always been a smooth transition.”
These fears (although Damian wouldn't admit to being afraid) turned out to be unfounded. After regaining his memory, Bruce was back to being himself–demanding, emotionally constipated and raring to return to The Mission. Not right away of course, because being Batman was quite unlike riding a bike, you couldn't just get back on it and hope for the best. Even though Bruce did his level best to attempt just that. He seemed to expect his body to stay on top of its game and looked genuinely disappointed that it decided to betray him in his moment of need.
Hilarious as it was, it was also dangerous to go out half-cocked and they both knew it.
“B, you need to take it slow. It was almost a year, you won’t help yourself by snapping a tendon because you want to get out on the streets. Alfred may bench you for good if that happens.”
And when did Dick become the voice of reason in this family, he wondered.
At least he wasn’t ignored right away. Bruce stopped lifting, put the weights down on the floor by his feet and looked at him with these piercing eyes. Dick often caught the alpha staring at them since he got back, as if trying to commit their faces to memory in case… just in case.
“Have a rest,” Dick repeated, coming closer with a towel. “Timmy didn’t drag you through time to send you to a hospital.”
The look didn't change, but Bruce accepted the towel with a grateful nod and used it to wipe the sweat from his face and neck. “I can’t allow that. I need the cowl back from you.”
Oh, ouch. That wasn’t hurtful at all. Dick tried to give the man the benefit of the doubt, because he knew that Bruce’s thoughts rarely came out gracefully–or at all, to be honest. He thought he did a rather good job at that whole replacement-Batman thing.
“You’ve spent enough time under it Dick, shouldering the burden that should be mine alone. Don’t think I’m not seeing what it’s doing to you. You never wanted this.” Bruce's voice was strong and decisive, but his eyes shifted down, to look at his hands, worn and bruised from years of abuse. “And I should have never left you alone to do it.”
“Bruce, I know you have this thing about looking underneath-of-the-underneath, but even you couldn’t have foreseen random time-travel.” At least Dick hoped he didn’t. “Someone had to step in and I’m the tallest.”
That managed to crack the man’s grim expression with the tiniest bit of a smirk. “Don’t think I didn’t notice the extra padding added to the heels.”
“Hey, you leave pretty big shoes to fill, you know? What are you, size twenty-five?”
Jokes were good. Jokes helped them communicate ever since the very beginning. “I’ll leave you to your training then, old man. Just make sure not to overdo it or Alfred will have both our heads.”
Unexpectedly, Bruce grabbed his hand before Dick finished turning away. “Dick…thank you.” He should have expected that, for a man who struggled with expressing emotions, at the very least Bruce never allowed himself to seem ungrateful. “Thank you. I know it was hard, but you did… exceptionally. With the cowl. And with Damian.”
Dick swallowed. “He’s a good kid.” Bruce’s hand was big and warm around his wrist.
“I never doubted that. But you make him better, and for that, I can’t thank you enough.” The alpha sighed. “You seem to be always picking up my slack.”
“Hey, that’s what Robin does.”
“No, that’s what a good son does.”
Oh god, they were getting mushy now! Dick was not prepared for the mushy stuff! “Are you getting mushy on me, old man?” Was Bruce embarrassed?
The grip on his wrist tightened. “This old man can still wipe the floor with you, chum.” Oh God, he was!
“Bring it on, partner.”
The spar was restrained. They kept it light and easy, more of an advanced kata with a partner than an actual duel, focusing on reading the opponent, breathing and muscle control–the basics. It was nice, peaceful and Dick couldn’t stop grinning at the familiar push and pull of this long-remembered dance.
And when Bruce finally pushed him down on the mats, straddled his back and carefully bit into the back of his neck, Dick let it happen. He went down obediently, like a good son and second in command, allowing for the transfer of power to occur without issues. It felt good, to be honest, to let the responsibility go, to return to his rightful place and state of mind. It relaxed something in Dick’s head, a thread stretched so tight it was close to snapping finally got to rest.
Of course, that peaceful feeling couldn’t last.
“Father, unhand Grayson right this instant!”
“I don’t understand why you’d allow yourself to be treated in such manner!”
“Little D, this isn’t…”
“You’re a capable warrior, you should not bow your head to any alpha!”
Dick was this close to pinching the top of his nose. “Bruce is also my dad, you realise that, yes?”
The boy eyed him suspiciously, not seeing the connection. Dick sighed. Pinched. Pulled out the ice pack from the freezer and applied it to his aching jaw. The little Demon kicked him accidentally and Dick was sure he felt bad about it. “When your umm’i scruffed you, was it to humiliate you? Show you disrespect?”
“No, of course not.” Still, no connection being made except now the kid looked upset on top of everything. “He did it to... you know why he did it.”
“Because you were drowning and couldn’t breathe, right?”
And he watched when the dots finally connected for the little alpha. Green eyes widened and looked at Dick with a sort of new clarity, the realisation in them pained and unsure.
“What about us, then?” Damian breathed. “I can’t be your Robin now.”
It was the question, wasn’t it? Just as they have found their stride, things just had to upturn once more.
“I can’t be your Batman,” Dick agreed. His hand rested on the boy’s shoulder and squeezed gently, feeling the slight shivering of the muscle underneath. His thumb brushed over the bruise of a mark Bruce was forced to bite into his youngest son to subdue his anger-fuelled flailing. It did them both good, Dick decided. “But I can be your Nightwing, if you’d let me.”
“It’s better than nothing, I guess.”
“I love you too, brat.”
“A lot of scruffing going on in the family recently,” Stephanie noticed at the breakfast table a couple of days later. “Should I be concerned?”
Dick smiled at the way Tim hunched, trying to hide the bruising on the back of his neck behind the collar of his sweatshirt. Damian did the same, albeit more unconsciously. Dick’s own bruise was light in comparison and he presented it proudly.
Alfred sighed ostentatiously as he poured them tea.
“So, what, Bruce came back with a bit of a craving for human flesh?” The girl nodded her thanks and winked mischievously to the butler. “I kinda wish I was around more to see all the manly munching.”
“Nothing as uncouth,” Alfred stated with dignity and an amused glint in his eyes. “Simply an effect of the pack hierarchy going back to normal.”
“I did nothing!” Tim grumbled under his breath. He still looked pale and worn, getting Bruce back was a prolonged operation that took a lot out of him; he was still recovering and Alfred strongly suggested he do it at the manor. “Damian went ballistic on B, but I was just minding my own business…”
“You were running on fumes and didn’t listen to Father when he told you to rest,” Damian interrupted, rolling his eyes. “He repeated himself four times before he grew tired of being ignored.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Tim,” Steph nodded, stuffing a breakfast muffin into her mouth.
Tim looked about ready to kill them all. Poor thing was never any good at this whole ‘morning’ business. “Great, thanks,” he mumbled into his jam-smeared toast. “See if I ever again face-off with Ra’s al Ghul to bring any of you losers back from the past.” It took Tim a moment to realise what he just revealed, before his eyes snapped to Damian as if pulled on a string.
“Did you see…” the boy started and stopped, clamming down suddenly, as if courage left him, but his expression was so earnestly hopeful it bordered on painful.
Tim shook his head slowly. “No. I’m sorry, but I didn't see any omegas there… neither did I see your mom.” He rubbed his face with both hands, as if trying to chase away a bad memory. “It was… Ra’s was alone and I didn’t have the presence of mind and opportunities to… I’m sorry, I should have looked into it.”
Damian swallowed and pulled himself back together with a tenacity that, frankly, scared Dick sometimes. “No need to apologise,” he said. “You stepped into a nest of vipers alone and unprepared, if you’d split your attention from Grandfather, chances are you wouldn’t be able to leave. It’s a miracle, really, that you did.”
Thank God, Alfred always knew what to do in situations where the rest of them floundered.
“Master Damian, I’m sure Titus would be happy to be let back inside after his morning jog. Would you be as kind as to bring him in while I prepare his meal?”
For a moment they feared that Damian would argue, puff himself up with his usual sneer and snap out that he doesn’t need to be coddled, but that moment passed and the pup deflated instead. He nodded and hopped off the chair to leave the dining room without a word.
“Sorry,” Tim whispered when the door closed. “I thought that he knew what was involved… I didn’t think.”
“No, it’s okay, you didn’t know,” Dick assured him. “It just–it’s been a while.”
Steph shook her head sadly. “Poor little bean. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t allowed to see my mom for a month, two years doesn't bear thinking.” She gave Dick a side-eyed look. “Maybe we could sneak him out one day? You know, ask Clark or Kon to fly him over for a few hours…” She didn’t finish the sentence, Tim interrupted her with a troubled expression on his gaunt face.
“I’d rather not risk it. From what I’ve seen… the situation wasn’t good on the Island. Ra’s was erratic and inconsistent, certainly not on top of his game and Talia was nowhere to be found. I have a bad feeling about it. There’s something brewing and I don’t want the brat in the middle of it.”
Aw, Timmy cared about their baby. Dick would hug him if there wasn’t a table between them.
“I think that young sir needs a distraction,” Alfred concluded. “A trip to visit young Master Kent seems to be in order.”
“On it.” Dick reached for his cell phone to text Clark. The kids hadn’t a playdate in a while, it was a great idea.
A weekend came and the idea proved not to be so great.
At half-past twelve on a Sunday afternoon, Dick was woken up by an insistent ringing of his phone.
He was still in bed; graciously permitted to sleep in, because last night’s patrol switched from a quick run across the city into a night-long chase across crumbling rooftops. It was exhausting and dirty, but he couldn’t stay angry at Poison Ivy when he was finally allowed back into his old skin, free to be Nightwing and fly across the city on his own wings. Bruce was slowly feeling his way back, trying to find his stride again and come to terms with Tim flying under different colours as Red Robin. Dick was there, ready to have his back until the proper Batman was ready to go back on the streets full time.
...it didn’t mean he wasn’t tired as a dog at the end of the night and looking forward to lazing in bed until Alfred decided to come and order him downstairs where a warm meal waited. Being torn from the pleasant doze by a shrill ringing noise was the exact opposite to what Dick had planned for the day.
“Yea-ah?” He yawned into the phone, rubbing is eyes, trying to force them to open. “What’s up?”
“Richard, I need you to come and retrieve me.”
Dick rose on an elbow, the sleepiness leaving him instantly once the tone of Damian’s voice registered in his brain. “Little D, what happened? Is everything alright?”
“It’s...“ It had to be the end of the world because Damian’s voice hitched. “Take me home, now!”
Uh-oh. Getting to Kansas, even using the Batplane, was going to take about two hours at the least, prep time and all included. Too long.
“Give me Clark, please.”
Clark was, unfortunately, just as flabbergasted by Damian’s sudden change of mind as Dick. The only information he could supply was that when the kids were roughhousing in the barn, Damian ended up with a scraped knee and having a band-aid applied to it seemed to set him off.
“Lois tried to calm him down, but he’s not responding well.” There was confusion evident in Clark’s voice, quite understandable, since his mate was an omega - one usually very good with kids, too. “He’s sitting on the roof now, sulking.”
Dick had a suspicion as to what went wrong, but his brain was still slow and resentful of being awoken, so he didn't have the will to explain the complexities of this specific baby alpha to an amazing man such as Clark Kent. “Can you bring him back to Gotham, please?” He might have whined a bit. “I’d take the plane, but it will be a couple hours and I don't want to leave you with the little grump for that long. You don’t deserve it and I’m sorry for any property damage...”
“Don’t be ridiculous, he’s no hassle,” Clark, bless him, didn’t even seem to be aware that he was lying. “And Bruce already promised to pay for any potential property damage.” His rich laugh filled the line when Dick snorted. “I’ll bring him home in a few, don't worry, Dickie.”
“Thanks, uncle Clark.” It was a good habit to butter up the Superman from time to time - no matter that Clark was unironically Dick’s favourite person in the world for close to two decades now. That rich laughter followed him when he finally rolled out of bed and gathered his clothes.
A quick shower later, Dick descended to the kitchen and informed Alfred that they would have a guest for tea. The Manor was quiet, its occupants gone to deal with their daylight responsibilities.
“Master Bruce is attending a meeting at the Wayne Foundation,” Alfred informed, setting a plate of sandwiches on the table. “Miss Stephanie returned home in the morning.”
“Timmy?” Dick mumbled around a mouthful of heaven, for which he recieved a scolding look.
“Who knows where Master Timothy is,” the butler shrugged gracefully. “A young gentleman picked him up after breakfast. Quite literally.”
“Kon was around? A date, you think?”
“I am not at liberty to say, Master Richard. Although, it would be considered high time, as they say.”
“Hm, someone should keep an eye on them, make sure that Timmy doesn’t corrupt the nice Kryptonian boy. Should I ask Clark?”
“Ask him what?” The man in question stepped through the doorway, dressed in full hero regalia. “Good morning Alfred, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve let myself in.”
“Not at all, sir. Richard was about to ask you to join us for a cup of tea and an afternoon snack if there’s no pressing matters for you to attend to.”
“I’d be honoured.” Clark smiled and took the offered chair, turning to Dick. “Damian raced upstairs as soon as we touched ground.” He sounded apologetic. “I still don't know what happened to make him distressed, but Jon is worried.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Dick promised. “In an hour or so, after he’s had a chance to cool down.”
He knew that the kid wouldn't be hard to find.
As expected, the scent of an upset pup led Dick straight up to the second floor, passed his own room, to the door at the end of the hall that, uncharacteristically, wasn’t closed shut. Through the small crack he could see the end of the bed and a tip of a socked foot peeking from underneath the blanket.
The fact that the door was left open meant that Damian didn’t want to be left completely alone–at least Dick hoped that was the case. He could wait for Bruce to come back home and sort out the problem, but this situation was quite sensitive and the older alpha didn't have the emotional range necessary to deal with it in a careful manner. No, in that case the trauma was too fresh for both the father and the son.
Sometimes Dick seriously wondered if parental issues were a prerequisite to getting a mask and a codename.
He sat down at the edge of Jason’s bed, resting his hand on the mound lying beneath the covers.
“Dami… was it Lois?”
Lois was a force of an omega - strong and decisive, and absolutely self-sufficient and self-realised as a working woman and as a mother. Dick had a suspicion that she was the catalyst for the current situation.
“Oh, kiddo.” He sighed when no answer came and lifted up the blanket and slipped underneath it head-first.
“Richard, what… stop! What are you doing!”
He came up next to Damian, with his head on the pillow, and pulled the kid into his arms. “C’mere, buddy.”
“No, come here. It’s a hugging moment and I will hug you, so settle down.”
Shockingly–or maybe not–the kid did settle down. He flopped like a lifeless doll, resting his forehead on the older alpha’s chest. He’d grown a couple of inches in the last year, but still felt so compact and small once the need to puff up and show off was gone.
Sometimes you were just too tired to fight, Dick understood that all too well. The need for comfort trumped everything else, even if you were an alpha.
“Now, tell me everything.” He murmured softly, running his hand up and down Damian’s back, carefully nudging his nose against the boy’s hair in a gentle scenting.
“What everything?” The kid mumbled, still trying to act though, but his voice wobbled a bit.
“Whatever you want to share. I know you miss him and I understand it. I still miss my mom, even though it’s been years. I remember how she smelled, the scent of her perfume and her skin. Her smile. Her nest in our caravan, it was tiny, but she made it perfect for dad and me, with every pillow in its proper place.”
“...I didn't sleep alone in a bed until I came here.” It was a whisper, just a breath against Dick’s collarbone. “The nest was… was always there…”
“He promised to stay in contact and I was supposed to send for him… but it’s been a long time…” There could be a sob, but Dick pretended not to hear it. If he reacted to it openly, the kid would clam up. “He’s not answering my letters… I fear mother’s involvement.”
“You think she’d keep him away from you on purpose?” That didn't sound out of character for the cold-blooded family and their unsympathetic life philosophy.
“I think he wouldn't let her… to keep him away… he’d have to be dead..”
“You think she would…?”
A beat of silence. “No. No, she respected him. They fought over me, but if not for father she’d most likely mate him… she wouldn't harm him.”
Didn’t mean that no one else wouldn’t take a chance.
“Did you talk to your mom? Can you ask her?”
“In the beginning, a few times, but she’s been silent for months now.” The pup snuggled deeper into Dick’s embrace. “I don't know what to do…”
“Shh, kiddo, it’s gonna be okay.” Dick allowed his voice to rumble gently in an expressly alpha vocalisation, brought down to the calming cadence he’d trained into it before he’d even presented, back in the circus. Kalina, their beastmaster, taught him that as a trick to calm the animals down and since then it had helped him numerous times when it came to people.
Damian nuzzled into the crook of his neck, pup-like and probably not entirely aware that he was doing it, and Dick let him. They didn't have an omega in the pack, but he hoped that it would be enough.
The case of Mr. Zsasz’s child fighting-ring started with the body of a kid floating in one of the gutters of the Toxic Acres and ended with the headless corpse of an adult man found two weeks later. The purposeful blood trail led the Police to the crumbling underground complex where a group of terrified kids awaited rescue. It was obvious who the body belonged to even before they found the missing head arranged on a pile of fourteen other bodies in the middle of an amateur fighting pit like some sort of bloody trophy from a horror movie.
It was a clean separation, one stroke from the front, Victor saw his executioner and knew the death was coming for him. The other criminals weren’t offered the same courtesy, all they got were either crushed bones or random dismemberment.
After reviewing the case files, Dick couldn’t make himself feel sorry for any of them. Of course, he’d prefer the men alive, able to answer questions and point them towards more accomplices and people who made the horrific blood sport of watching kids kill each other profitable for Zsasz.
The Bats still intended to get to the bottom of this, they weren’t about to leave a case in the hands of the police. Who knew how many small bodies hadn’t washed up on the shores of Gotham Bay? As much as stopping the whole cruel scheme was appreciated, such a gruesome murder had to be investigated properly.
Dick wasn’t sure what encouraged him to find the perpetrators more–the need to bring them to justice them or to shake their hands in thanks. There were just some people who really didn’t deserve to continue breathing and Zsasz was one of them. Even if what Dick had told Damian was true and the slippery slope just waited on each of them to trip, territorial instincts of an alpha male were hard to silence–no alpha worth their salt would ever come to terms with children being harmed in their territory.
Surprisingly, Damian was the one leading the investigation this time. Batman was feared and respected, but when the witnesses were mostly traumatised kids, Robin’s esteem got them further ahead. The little alpha was quite a bit more severe than a Robin should be, but this time it played in their favour–his stone-cold resolve to bring the criminal ring down and, more importantly, avenge the dead pups was palpable in the air around him and the street-kids instantly recognised a stalwart ally in the sullen boy.
Damian promised them vengeance and that’s what they needed to hear to offer him their trust. Dick only hoped to be quick enough to stop the brat before he fulfilled that promise.
It didn’t give them much, information-wise, the kidnapped kids were drugged and kept away from any important information their kidnapers might have divulged, but at least they could describe their rescuers in some detail. A big masked man with a strange accent and a cool sword, and an even bigger man with grey skin and a trench-coat.
Well, it was a start. Two ‘strange’ men apparently dismantled an operation composed of over a dozen hardened criminals and took down a madman that led it. There was no guarantee that there weren’t more of them waiting outside, that it wasn’t a cohesive unit of some sort–maybe even competition in the world of horrific crime? But the children were adamant that their heroes were the ‘good guys’, so that must count for something, even if quote, “the big one looked very scary.”
It didn’t change the fact that these men were able and willing to slice and dice their way through a small regiment of criminals without sustaining any proven damage, and that made them very dangerous to have around. The trail was unclear but, like a dog with a bone, Bruce didn’t want to let it go and Dick followed in his alpha’s steps.
Little did he know that he needn’t look very hard, trouble would find him first.
The trouble was a blind shot from a panicked and unexpectedly armed car thief, that grazed Dick’s calf and almost resulted in a fall from a second story balcony. It was nearly followed by another uncoordinated shot that had a chance to take off half of Nightwing’s face as he clung to a fire escape that luckily stopped his descent. He was saved by a piece of a broken brick that suddenly and with no warning crashed into the back of the criminal’s neck, dropping him like a marionette with cut strings.
Dick traced back the brick’s trajectory, half-expecting to see Damian or Steph on the other end, smiling cheekily at his blunder, but instead found an unknown figure crouched on a fire escape of the building opposite to his. No, not completely unknown–the clothes Dick could see in the dim light of the flickering street lamps were well-known to him.
Damian arrived in Gotham in a very similar set.
The hair on the back of Dick’s neck stood up when his eyes fell on the handle of a long blade strapped to the assassin’s side.
A blade that was perfectly capable of taking a head off in one go, not to mention a hand or two. Belonging to a tall man with a strange accent and a face hidden behind a mask – maybe even the mask Dick was seeing now, facing him impassively across the street. The mask belonging to a League assassin…who apparently just saved his life.
The dots connected in the space of a moment, the infallible gut-feeling telling him to move, and Dick was jumping across the gap, his bruised leg be damned, helping himself with the grapple, to land with a clang on the ladder that the assassin vacated an instant before.
“Hey now, wait up!” Dick called, chasing after the figure climbing cat-fast up the fire escape towards the roof. “I just want to thank you!”
Predictably, it didn’t even slow the man down–and it was a man, from up close it was more than obvious–but that didn’t mean Nightwing was about to let it go. The presence of the League in Gotham was always a cause for concern, but especially now that a new Robin ran beside Batman. Were they observing the Demon’s heir? Planning to kidnap him again? Some other nefarious purpose?
He somersaulted over the edge of the flat roof, already moving forward, intending to catch up to the assassin using a burst of speed given to him by the momentum of the fall.
That plan was quickly discarded however. As soon Dick found his feet, a thick arm swung towards his face, forcing him to fall back into a crouch–where an even thicker leg awaited him with the intention of kneeing the side of his head. Half-crouching and unable to properly harness the momentum or find enough leverage for a successful block, the only option left was to roll sideways, disengage and arm himself.
His escrima sticks powered up with a reassuring hum, but Dick didn’t manage to raise them properly before the assassin was on him again, body flowing gracefully, but fists heavy.
“Come on, I just want to ask a few questions!” Dick threw between the dodges, making sure his smile was as inviting as he could make it. “We don’t have to fight!”
No answer, the shadow underneath the crimson hood gave him nothing to go on. He so hated when bad guys wore masks.
“You saved me, right? Let’s be friends!” he offered, blocking a kick that for anyone else could easily end up with a cracked femur. “Know anything about headless bodies? Does the name Zsasz ring any bells?”
That got him a reaction–a twitch, a moment of hesitation so miniscule it was almost invisible, but Dick’s trained senses picked it up with ease. But before he managed to take advantage of it, the man was coming at him with a new barrage of strikes that needed his complete focus to avoid.
It was a strange encounter, not in the least because the assassin saved him just a few minutes ago – but also because Nightwing had fought the League before, he had fought its assassins and knew their basic style. This wasn’t it. This one fought with a strange mix of the fluid grace the shadows were known for, but his punches landed like these of a boxer and in close quarters his stance was tightening into that of an experienced brawler–elbows close, head lowered, dodges mostly from the waist with very little fancy footwork–only to change back when the distance lengthened again. The sword was yet to make an appearance, all of Dick’s attacks were either blocked with reinforced gauntlets or avoided by a dodge, which was strange by itself. Apart from the clothes and a few recognizable stances, it wasn’t like fighting a League’s member at all.
His scent was also not right – it was surprisingly heavy and spicy, as if he wasn’t trying to hide his presence at all the way the League did.
Was the man playing pretend and wasn’t an assassin in the first place? Maybe a dropout?
“You playing dress up, or something?” Dick taunted, hoping for another tell. “The usual ninjas are mostly unconscious at this point.” He nodded at the sword. “You know how to use that at all or is it just a decoration?”
As it turned out, yes, he did know how to use the sword–surprisingly well. The moment the blade entered the fight Dick understood that the stranger was holding back on him considerably, if the ground Nightwing was forced to give up was to go by. His opponent’s entire fighting style changed with that one addition and Dick struggled to catch up and keep his distance from the sharp steel coming at him fast and hard, sparks flying when it connected with the escrima sticks. Normal steel would crack after the third strike, but blade didn't even look dented.
“You talk too much, pretty bird,” a deep voice growled at him in Russian.
In his surprise, Dick stumbled like a complete amateur. Before he had a chance to straighten his stance, the man was already past his defenses, slamming the handle of the sword into his solar plexus, sending him to the ground.
‘That will leave a nice bruise,’ Dick thought, gasping, gathering himself to stand–that’s when a solid weight pressed him back into the ground and, before he had a chance to twist around, a hand closed over the back of his neck.
Fingers dug in hard and Dick felt his muscles melt. Between one blink and another his body relaxed and he slumped down like a dead weight. So that’s what Timmy was talking about when Damian did it to him, that complete and utter surrender of the flesh. Damn, Bruce had scruffed him many times in the past, but this was…insane in how effectively it rendered him defenseless.
They will have to investigate the effect and maybe implement protections against it, because Dick could not move a toe and could only hope that he would survive this encounter to tell the tale. In hindsight, he should have let the others know what was happening at the beginning of the chase.
The body on top of him bore down and the smell hit his nose–unnaturally spicy and sharp, like the cheap incense from a hippie shop. To mask the assassin’s natural scent? God, it was making Dick’s head spin.
“I don't have much time to play with you,” the assassin-or-not whispered into his ear. “Keep the Bat’s son in Gotham.”
Dick snapped to attention at the mention of the boy. He’d stiffen if his body wasn’t presently trying to soak into the cracks in the concrete he was laying on.
“The League will come for him soon. His mother went insane.” The fingers on his neck tightened and so did the voice, before both started to move away. “She’ll try to take him away.”
“Not important. Keep the boy safe.”
“Wai… the ‘mega…” Dick fought his body for every word. “His… umm’i…”
The shadow stopped, turned to look at him. God, he was tall.
“He’s gone. Tell the boy, he’s already gone.”
Dick searched, but by the time he could move and trust his balance not a trace was left of the man, even the cloying scent-canceller disappeared in the damp, squalid air of Gotham’s summer. His head was full of questions and his heart heavy with the answer to a question plaguing him for weeks. If the assassin was telling the truth, it meant that the lack of contact from Damian’s omega mother (they may as well start calling a spade a spade) wasn’t by choice. The heavier implication was that the boy’s darkest fears were true–that the omega was no more.
No, Dick didn’t want to believe that, it was just too cruel. It would break the pup’s heart to learn that the beloved person he was waiting on for so long was…wasn’t going to come for him.
God, it was cruel–if it was true. But then, why would the man lie when in the same breath he had warned Dick about the danger to the boy? A danger that would come from his own family? It wasn’t beyond the realm of belief; Talia wasn’t happy with Damian’s involvement with the Wayne pack and had apparently cut contact with her son a while ago. But the League’s assassins were fanatically faithful to al Ghuls, so why would this one break his oath and work against them?
Maybe the omega had one faithful servant left in that nest of vipers, after all? Maybe he was an alpha that fell for the omega’s charm in some sort of a doomed courtly romance… Damian did imply many times that his umm’i was attractive and well sought after, that even Talia and Ra’s had found him appealing. What changed?
Would Ra’s grow mad enough to kill an omega that raised his grandson?
Dick made his way back to the Cave, fully intending to find out what bad tidings befell the House of the Demon before any of it reached Damian’s ears.
The package looked rather shoddy, wrapped in a creased, grey paper and secured with twine, both products plain and available pretty much everywhere in the world. It was roughly fifteen-by-ten inches and pretty flat, weighting no more than two pounds.
There was nothing special about the whole thing, except that it was addressed to Damian Wayne, and that Alfred found it on the steps of the kitchen porch first thing in the morning when he opened the door to take his breakfast outside, overlooking the garden–as he was wont to do ever since Dick could remember, whenever the weather agreed.
There was no trace of the delivery boy–none of their numerous sensors had picked up a disturbance. There was no camera footage and no footprints left on the gravel path running around the house. It looked like a ghost had sneaked their way in, dropped the package and left. The paper was dusted for fingerprints and traces of DNA, but none were to be found. Scans for explosives and harmful chemical compounds came back clear–except one that registered metal.
And now the mystery package sat on the workbench in the Cave, surrounded by atmosphere so tense it could be cut with a knife.
“This is unbecoming,” Damian spoke in the end, sniffing disdainfully. “It was addressed to me, so let me open it, father.”
“We have to be careful, Damian,” Bruce did his best to sound unaffected, but Dick knew that a breach of security of this magnitude was bound to push him out of balance. “We don’t know who sent it or what their intentions are.”
“If you’d allow me to scent it, Father, I could narrow down the suspect pool! I know scents of most of the League’s assassins!”
The kid was vibrating in place, staring at the package as if the grey paper held all the answers to the universe, and Dick shared a tense look with Tim and Alfred. Ever since the unexpected warning a month ago, they were observing the League’s activity and Tim was right in his suspicions, something was brewing. Something big enough for the organization to withdraw and hold its assets even tighter than before–all they could do was to try and prepare for the worst.
“I have to say that Master Damian is right in this case.” Alfred stepped forward, looking at his wristwatch in a carefully conspicuous manner. “Filibustering will get us nowhere, except late for dinner.”
The older beta stepped close to the table, strategically placing himself between it and Bruce, and motioned for Damian to get at it.
“Wait, let me…” Tim moved forward, but was waved away impatiently.
The little demon was already pulling out a switchblade and carefully cutting the string. When that didn’t cause an explosion, everyone breathed out and the grey paper parted easily under the knife’s edge.
“What is it, little D?” Dick asked when the boy stilled unnaturally. He cast a look at Bruce, who stood on the other side of the bench, but all he got was a head shake.
“Son?” The alpha asked, leaning in closer, concern and alarm raising in his scent. “What is it, Damian?”
It was a scarf. A long piece of thick brocade, green and gold (most probably not only in colour), folded smoothly into a neat triangle that Damian carefully brought out of the wraps and, with shaking hands, brought to his face. He looked like he was scenting, but his shoulders shook and he closed his eyes tightly.
“Son?” Bruce rumbled gently, kneeling to put his hands on the pup’s elbows. “Who does it belong to?”
But they knew, didn’t they? If Tim’s fingers strangling Dick’s wrist and the sorrowful look on Alfred’s face were anything to go by, they all knew. While Bruce tried to get the boy to look up at him, Tim looked over the rest of the package–there was one more thing buried underneath the packing paper, a smaller bungle wrapped in a piece of green muslin.
A knife–no, a dagger. A kris made from damascus steel, graceful and sleek; a callsign of the League of Shadows, with their symbol etched into the side of the bolster. This was no utilitarian tool, not with the jewelled inlays and the front guard covered in gold. This was a treasure and a status symbol more than just a weapon.
Damian took one look at the blade and what was left of his resolve crumbled. Luckily, Bruce was there to catch his son, bring him to his chest and let the pup hide his tears in the soft fabric of his sweater.
“I think it’s time for some tea,” Alfred suggested gently and Bruce nodded in acquiesce, following the butler upstairs with Damian curled into his shoulder, clutching the scarf tightly.
Tim and Dick exchanged weary looks.
“That supports your friend’s words,” Tim mused, carefully putting the kris down on the bench. “And my suspicions. Damnit!” He rubbed at his face. “Sometimes, I really hate being right!”
“Yeah,” Dick agreed quietly. Sometimes, he also hated when Tim was right.
When Dick was left alone in the Cave, he bent over the discarded paper and breathed in, trying to catch the scent of the one who put it together. There was nothing on the outside, of course, but the inside, where the scarf was folded, he could catch… barely… a whiff of something soft and sweet, with the barest note of wood smoke…
And if he closed his eyes tight enough, for a brief moment, he could almost imagine the scent was familiar.
The Demon came for its heir, but not in the way any of them could have predicted or prepared for. It wore his mother’s face like an ill-fitting mask, an impostor in her skin, leading a small army made up of misshapen beings and their mutated general.
Dick had met Talia in the past and, even though there was no love lost between them, he had always respected her strength and pitied her position of a daughter of the tyrant, not good enough to be his heir, but never allowed to leave his grasp. It was a low-key sympathy, born out of a childish kindness of a Robin. But not anymore.
The assassin was right, Talia went insane.
It didn't matter, though, nothing mattered apart from winning the battle and leaving this cursed place. Later, when they had time, they could track the clues and figure out what really happened in the House of the Demon. How had Ra’s met his end? And what did his estranged daughter have to do with everything?
But not yet. Not until he put down the monster calling himself the Heretic and got Damian back home, safe and sound.
‘I won't let them take you,’ a thought pierced through the pulsing lights behind Dick’s eyelids, through the swirling vortex of nausea that held him down face-first in the dry dirt, gasping for breath and praying for the vertigo to stop. ‘I won't let them take another Robin!’
“Nightwing!” a voice called his name, frantic and harsh with worry, half-breathless. “Grayson, get up!”
Uh-oh, the codenames went off, this was serious.
He was trying, but his body was numb and his head was spinning. He had to black out at some point, because he didn't remember falling–just the vibration of his sticks with every sword block, a momentary distraction of an arrow lodging itself in his bicep, and a flash of a pommel heading for his face. He… the Heretic knocked him out?
“Richard, move!” Damian’s voice rose above the clamor of the battle, above the taunts of the monstrosity Talia brought to life, above the white noise filling Dick’s head. It was raspy, full of pain, it was a voice of a pup standing over their fallen pack leader and begging them to move. “Get up!”
Pack leader… where was Bruce? Where was Tim? Everyone? God, he hoped that they were close behind, the kid could not stand up to that mutant alone, he could…
He heard the sound of a blade slipping against another, followed by a little punched-out breath, ending in a short, harsh cough. The sound of a hit that made it, of a weapon that reached its target. Like a crowbar hitting flesh. Dick’s heart thundered in his chest and a cold wave of fear pushed up his throat, because no, he wasn’t going to allow that a second time!
His eyelids twitched open and he saw them. The Robin, bloodied and stumbling, crossbow bolts sticking out of his left shoulder and calf. Oh God. Still standing, still fighting, circling the giant opposite him, guarding his fallen brother with his teeth bared in a bloody grimace.
Dick had to get up! Had to… his legs were numb, but he had to…
Heretic swung, Damian danced away, but his wounds were severe and he didn’t quite stick the landing; the sword came down and broke his block… and time slowed down for Dick. There were people in the distance, things were exploding close by and the world might as well be ending, but for him only one thing existed–the boy he had learned to love and was about to lose, because he wasn’t strong enough to protect him.
‘He’s going to be thirteen in two weeks.’ The thought was absolutely ridiculous but that was what Dick’s brain decided to latch on to. ‘I was going to take him to the circus… to show him… show him…’
The block broke, the sword came down–but never connected.
Something fell from the ceiling–appeared out of the goddamn thin air–crashed into Heretic, sending the giant stumbling back, either out of surprise or because of sheer velocity. And the sound it made… Dick for a moment thought it was his pulse crashing in his own ears, but no, it was a growl, but unlike any growl he had ever heard. Somehow at the same time gravelly and pitched, like something cooked up in a horror movie sound booth, a noise that Dick could feel down in his stomach, travelling up his spine and raising every hair on the way. A noise that could not be produced by human vocal cords.
But it was a human, had to be, once it stopped Dick could see and, even though his vision was getting hazy, recognise.
The assassin from the roof he had met months ago went after Heretic like a man possessed, robes flying and blades clashing, and the noise never ending, intertwined with rough words in Arabic, thrown like punches, harsh and enraged. And it was hard to believe, but Heretic gave ground. Maybe the viciousness of the attack surprised him into falling back, or the words meant something to him, but the giant was pushed back, slow and steady, away from the Robin laying in a heap on the ground, bleeding and stunned. Dick was stunned himself, but they had no time for that.
He pulled himself up on an elbow, had to close his eyes when the vertigo struck and nausea rose, pushed through it, just like he was taught. Bruce couldn't be far behind, he had to have dealt with Talia by this point, Dick could not get distracted by the arrival of a new ally. He had to get to Damian. Had to get them out of there.
But his body had reached its limit. It slumped down to the litany of curses just as the Heretic seemed to regroup and pressed forward with an enraged roar, massive sword swinging, muscles bulging, ground shaking from his steps.
The first arrow hit him in the right knee, dead on point, punching through the other side in a spray of blood and bone-shards. The second lodged itself into his hip, the force of it almost enough to send the beast back a step. The third one pierced the arch of the foot, pinning it to the ground. (Dick knew these arrows… knew the man with such impeccable aim…but how? Why?)
The assassin took the chance provided by those seconds of distraction.
Just like with Mr Zsasz, the cut was clean. The head clipped off of the hunched shoulders smoothly and like in a dream, Dick watched it fall. Swathed as it was in the turban and the mask he was grateful that he couldn’t see the eyes wide in shock or lips opening to scream in denial. Even though he wasn’t squeamish by nature, a waterfall of blood that followed turned his stomach even more than the concussion.
The nerve-tearing noise finally ceased, but only to be replaced by another one. And for a moment Dick could not place it, that high-pitched whine, it was so weird to hear in a place like this, but it tugged at him, just like… a pup whining for attention.
He didn't want to believe that it was Damian, the kid he knew would rather bite off his tongue than show weakness of such magnitude. Was he hallucinating on top of everything?
If so, then why did the assassin react to it, too? Turned on a foot and all but scrambled to the prone child, dropping his sword in the haste to get to the crying pup. Hands rose up to the shadow of the hood and returned holding the mask. Though Dick couldn't see the face it hid, Damian did and his reaction was another reedy whine, the arm not pierced with arrows weakly reaching up, fingers trembling.
The stranger purred back, pulling the pup into his arms and Dick could kick himself for being an idiot. Of course. Of course, he got tricked by the scent-blockers and the tall stature, allowed his own expectations of what an omega should be cloud his judgement.
The fabled umm’i gathered his pup into his lap, nuzzled into his neck, whispering soft words in the al Ghul dialect, an unending string of gentle coos following a careful investigation of the bolts sticking out of the boy’s back and leg. And Damian soaked it up, pushing his face into the shadow of the hood, into the shoulder the omega rested his head against, his shaking hands clenching into the fabric of the robes as he was nearly engulfed by the powerful arms that lifted him with ease as the man stood up.
...and turned away to leave.
Damian squirmed and whined. The man stopped. Dick almost whined too, unwilling to give the kid up. He struggled to rise again, to speak, but his muscles were trembling and his throat felt swollen, he couldn’t…
From his place on the ground he looked up and, as the darkness started to close in again, he saw the man turning to look at him. A pair of luminescent green eyes burned itself into his mind before he slipped away.
Dick woke up in a soft bed looking at an off-white, slightly concave ceiling overhead, surprisingly missing the nausea and splitting headache associated with concussions. His left arm was bandaged with his wrist locked into a brace, his right temple throbbed and when he narrowed his eyebrows in confusion he could feel a familiar pull that signaled butterfly stitches. He still felt like one big bruise, but someone put him back together. Great.
Someone also got him out of his clothes and stripped him down to–some more prodding–swimming trunks? That was just strange.
But not as strange as the vision of Roy Harper sitting by Dick’s bedside, dressed in a t-shirt and cargo shorts, totally engrossed in the screen of a wafer-thin digital tablet he held in one hand. He looked relaxed, his skin was tanned and his hair longer than Dick remembered from the last time they’d seen one another. When his eyes rose to meet Dick’s own, there was no surprise in them. There wasn’t much warmth either, but… it had been almost three years, so Dick’s expectations were modest.
He tried to push a greeting through the dryness in his throat, but the sound he ended up with was more akin to a raccoon choking on an apple peel.
Roy put the tablet away and bent down to pick up something from the floor by the bed. The ice cube landed on Dick’s tongue and even that small amount of water was a blessing for his parched throat. He crunched it between his teeth, mindless of the throbbing emanating from the side of his jaw where a lucky opponent managed to score a punch.
“That really you, Harper?” Success.
“Yeah, Dickie, in the flesh.”
The answer was accompanied by a wink and it was so familiar that any suspicions of clones and disguises were instantly laid to rest.
“Good, I thought I was hallucinating on top of everything else.” That established, Dick moved up the ladder of questions ordered by importance. The room was unlike any place he’d ever seen–and yet there was a familiarity to it that he could not shake. It was spartan when it came to furniture, more like the inside of a shell carved in white marble, decidedly unearthly, with screens framed in the walls and no windows. Only one pair of doors sat in a wall opposite the bed. No sign of his suit or weapons, or any other Bat. “Roy, where are we?”
“Funny you’d ask that.”
“...I’ll know sooner or later. Can’t you spare us both some time and effort?”
Roy was still relaxed, but a shadow of discomfort crept over his face. Dick noticed, because he could not make his eyes stop roving over the archer. God, he looked so much–older. Older, more worn, bigger. Harder. But also, in some intangible sense, calmer, more at peace. His scent was balanced, the absence of artificial undertones in it meant that the omega has been clean for a while.
“We’re in my spaceship.”
Okay, that wasn’t an answer Dick expected to hear. “Spaceship?” He repeated, dumbly.
“Yup. On my tropical island.”
“…you have an island and you never told me?”
“A bit hard to do from a Middle Eastern prison,” Ray’s voice was cheerful, but his eyes grew unexpectedly cold and the scent soured. “They have a bad habit of opening your letters.” He reached down again and brought up a cup of ice tea. “I assume that’s the reason none of yours got to me.”
If Dick didn’t already feel unbalanced and in pain, the calm accusation would make him flinch outwardly as well as inwardly. Unfortunately, it was a bigger issue than he had the energy or mental fortitude for now. They needed to talk, and Roy needed to hear and believe Dick’s apology, believe his regret over the loss of contact, but there was simply no time now for that while low key panic still thrummed just under the surface of his skin.
Dick accepted another ice cube and stepped over the matter, fully aware that it was a classic Bruce-tactic of delegating emotions and relationships to the backstage. He wanted to puke, but it wasn’t like he didn’t know that he was picking up bad habits from the man who raised him, that he wasn’t… that wasn’t important now.
“Roy,” he tried again, “I need to know.”
The archer hummed in amusement. “You Bats all think that you need to know things, don’t you?”
“Roy, please.” He hefted himself up on his elbow, fighting the dizziness from prolonged bed rest, voice close to begging. “Is Robin alright? I need to know if the kid is…” Roy was there when the Heretic was killed, he helped to bring him down, he would not leave Damian at the mercy of...
“Jesus Christ, you’re all so dramatic!” It was way too easy to push him back down; Dick blamed Roy’s super-archer arms. “The kid is fine. More than fine, there’s really no better place for him to be right now.”
That answered another question and Dick felt his chest expand as the iron bar of worry incrementally loosened around it. “He’s with the… the umm’i?”
The omega’s whole face twitched in the way that always signalled he was two seconds from laughing at a joke only he understood. “Oh man, he’s going to love you calling him that.”
“Why?” Dick frowned. “Why would al Ghul’s omega care what I call him? And how did you… how did you end up working with him?” None of it made sense! Especially the way Roy was looking at him, startled and momentarily confused in the way that just begged Dick to open his mind and look at the bigger picture.
Because there was sense to all of this, something waiting just at the edge of his awareness, niggling at him and demanding attention. Like a puzzle that had half of the pieces missing, but he knew the image it was supposed to show.
“You don’t know.” Roy breathed, partly in awe, partly in shock. “Oh snap, you have no idea… Bat-boy not knowing something! Fuck, that’s rich!”
“You’re not reassuring me here.” Dick swallowed the anger that wanted to raise to the surface, the growl that wanted to escape his throat–an alpha demand that would shut down Roy’s friendly exterior and leave Dick with no information at all. Harper never took kindly to alphas trying to flex at him. “Quite the opposite, actually.”
“Oh, buddy,” Roy patted his arm. “You’re in for a surprise.”
Damian swam in and out of awareness for a while, doggedly clawing his way towards consciousness just like he’d been taught, instinctively cataloguing his surroundings in case danger still lurked nearby. He was in pain and he was afraid, the last he remembered, Richard was unconscious on the ground, a sword coming down towards Damian, his own sent weapon flying, forced down with insulting ease, the flat of it hitting him in the brow and then... the rest was hazy. He remembered wisps and flashes, and nothing that could be trusted, because the most prevalent piece was also something he could not allow himself to believe. Couldn’t trust that it wasn’t a dream, some sort of delirium… just wishful thinking...
But… but he was in a nest, now. Warm and soft, and smelling of sweetness he was afraid that he'd forgotten: rich and tranquil, and so very beloved. Damian didn't open his eyes, afraid of waking if it was a dream, and instead stretched his senses as far as he could. Moved his fingers, (one of his hands was strapped to his chest, he could feel stitches in his shoulder) his toes, (his left thigh was also bandaged, but no broken bones), inhaled and exhaled carefully, (amberwood smoke, freshly washed linens, calm and comfort, and… and…) and squeezed his eyelids tight, trying to stop the wetness building underneath them from escaping, tried to keep his breathing slow and steady…
The person in the nest with him hummed, shifted, the blanket covering his face was lifted and a cool tip of a nose touched Damian's forehead. He felt warm exhalations hit his face as it travelled up, into his fringe, then down to nuzzle at his temple, unhurried, gentle. He struggled to breathe slowly, to stay in this state between dream and reality at all cost, terrified of losing it…
The touch moved to his cheek, softer now, a bit rough–like a pair of lips bitten down on too often. There was a bruise there, around Damian's eye; he could feel the swelling, the blunt ache. It wasn’t the only one, his whole body ached and throbbed, but under the gentle caresses the pain seemed to dull, disappear. It flared briefly when a tongue ran over the scratched skin, the pressure a bit more acute, but the action soothing in itself, calm and steady, deliberate licks around his eye, around his ear, moving down the edge of his jaw…
Damian lifted his head to bare his neck almost without conscious thought, like a kit of two, terrifying himself with the way his body complied with the show of vulnerability. The side of his neck was licked, the humming raising again, edging into a purr, and Damian’s breath hitched once, twice, his bandaged fingers twitched helplessly only to be covered by a big warm hand that squeezed them gently. He bit his lips to keep inside the sound that wanted to burst out of his chest, to keep the tears in.
“I’ve got you,” Umm’i whispered, nuzzling him tenderly. “I’m here, ‘bibi. You can let go.”
So he let go. The omega held him through it, close to the wide chest he knew so well, hidden in the arms he knew to be stronger than steel, stroking his back and head, running calloused fingers through his hair, purring loudly enough to be heard over Damian’s sobbing and his hitching breaths. There was desperation in it, with his one functional hand Damian held on to Jason, fingers clawed into his tunic, pressing himself as close as possible, as he cried and whined, and tried to breathe in that familiar scent. It was like back then, when he almost drowned, when Jason took him to the nest and cared for him, when Damian felt his bones go soft from the gentleness of it all.
Jason cooed at him and nuzzled his hair until Damian finally calmed down enough to steady his breathing and stop the high-pitched sounds escaping his throat. He wasn’t a kit anymore, he was thirteen, he needed to act like it.
“I thought…” His voice still shook, though. “I thought you…”
Talia’s words came back to haunt him, cruel and merciless as she gloated over his loss, lied straight to his face about the fate of his omega. Such hateful things she’d told him.
“I survived.” Jason whispered into his ear, pulling Damian deeper into the nest, into himself. “I managed to escape before it all went down. I had to stay away… I’m sorry, Dami, I couldn't go to you.”
It hurt to know. But he understood. Tried to.
“Ra’s would track me back to Gotham.” There was pain in the omega’s voice and in his eyes. “I had to run the other way… as far as possible.”
“Father would protect you,” Damian voiced fervently. “The clan would take you in.”
“I wouldn't let them.”
Oh. Of course. Of course, he forgot. He had three years with his father’s clan now, he had time to know them, to become a part of them, but Jason–didn’t. At the manor Jason Todd was a ghost wandering the halls and hiding in the shadows of sad conversations. For Jason, father's clan was a painful thing he had spent a decade trying not to think about.
It was so easy to forget that when Damian had first set out for Gotham, he’d planned to kill both Richard and Drake.
“I doesn't matter now,” he decided and it had to be enough. “You’re here.”
You saved me, he wanted to say. You cut off the head of a monster for me.
But he didn’t say it, just snuggled back into the warm embrace and pretended that his nose wasn’t running and his eyes were dry.
“I’m here, ‘bibi, and I will never leave you again if I can help it.”
Damian had questions, so many of them. What did Jason do when he was alone and clanless? Did he have to fight for survival? Did he get hurt? Did he have someone to protect him? Who was the redhead that piloted the ship and how did Umm’i come into possession of it? Questions upon questions, and none of them urgent enough to tear him out of the calm tranquility of resting in the nest–finally, after so much time.
True to his word, Jason stayed with him. Damian woke up later to a careful investigation of his wounds and was coerced into drinking some sweet fruit juice.
Neither of them was ready to leave the nest or each other. For a long while he simply allowed himself to just lay there, soaking up the comfort and warmth of the beloved embrace, thoughts slowing down to a crawl, the stress of the last three years–that he barely allowed himself to acknowledge–finally finding release and falling away, leaving his spirit unburdened for the first time in a long time.
Umm’i was here. He had Damian, he would never leave him again. The Heretic was dead, they’d won, ruined his mother’s plans. He wasn’t a failure, he wasn’t a waste of space, he had saved Richard, he was Robin, a true hero. And even if before it wasn’t something important in the slightest, now he felt almost deliriously happy that… that all of his struggles were worth something, worth the light in his omega’s eyes when he looked at Damian, that he had something to show for it. That he was someone to be proud of.
He knew Richard thought so, the alpha never made it a secret that he felt pride every time Damian did something ‘heroic,’ fought his upbringing to be something more than what he was made to be. He wasn’t sure about Drake and the females, their relationships were strained and still shaky, but Pennyworth seemed to appreciate Damian on his own merit nowadays. And father…
He hoped that this time it would be enough to make the Batman proud.
But how long would it last once father discovered that Damian knew all along, that he was in on Ra’s al Ghul’s deception? That he watched the family suffer from an unspeakable loss and never said a word to lessen it.
“What is it, ‘bibi?” Jason murmured, smelling a rise of distress in Damian’s scent. As close as they were, he could probably read his mind.
“Father… did you see him?”
“He will find us.”
Oh, so it was no more hiding for Jason Todd. He was either ready to face his past or simply unable to leave Damian’s side, even if it meant facing the Bat.
“We will worry when we cross that bridge.”
“Is Richard here?”
“Was he unharmed?”
“He’s okay. Roy is taking care of him.”
“Who is Roy?”
“What is it? ‘bibi?”
Tears gathered in his eyes and he had no idea how to stop them. He was so emotional for some reason, completely shameful.
“You promised not to get mated…”
A sigh. “Shut up, brat. Go back to sleep.”
Alas, every good thing has to come to an end, and theirs came when the door to the small room opened with a quiet whoosh and two figures appeared in the doorway.
“Roy, I can walk on my own, you don't have to prop me up.”
“I’m here in case you faint.”
“Why would I… Dami? Are you alright?”
“Richard. I am...”
“Hello, pretty bird.”
“Yeah, I told you, sit down, Dickie.”
Hey folks, sorry it took me forever to post this chapter - and that it's kinda shoddily betaed, I was going in blind this time:)
However, this is the end of this instalment! :O I will most probably write more for this AU, but these next ones will be shorter and less sprawling:)
Enjoy! And if you wanna chat, find me on tumblr under the same name;]
Dick felt his knees going soft.
If he were anyone else, he might have had problems with recognising this face, might not have been even able to connect it to the scrawny kid he used to briefly know a decade ago. But Dick has been trained in pattern recognition since he was a child and his memory was near perfect, his brain made connections instantly –it was just this time that it had trouble believing his eyes.
“It’s impossible…” He stammered, trying to come up with something less cliche and more helpful, but his head was empty, his stomach was heading towards his throat. He was seeing a ghost. “You…”
“I did,” the ghost said, his own voice not much stronger than Dick’s, accompanying posture half-challenging and half-defensive. “But I came back.”
Dick had to… he had to sit down. There was no other place than the raised platform where the bed was – no, wait, not a bed. A nest. His knees locked and he couldn’t make another step as one clear thought raised from the chaos, an ingrained courtesy of not getting into a nest he wasn’t explicitly invited into.
Luckily, Roy was there to support him with a strong arm winding around Dick’s shoulders.
“I’ll take him to the kitchen,” the archer offered. “To put some food into him. You come in when you’re ready to talk.”
“No,” Dick protested instantly. “No, I… I…”
What if they closed the door and the person behind them disappeared? What if this was just some delirious dream? What if-what if?! He just saw Damian, all in one piece and breathing, didn’t even have a chance to scent him yet…!
“It’s okay, Roy, he can stay.”
The man (How?) stretched the arm that wasn’t holding Damian (Christ, his arms were so long, he was so big!) and pushed some bedding to the side, uncovering enough of the platform for Dick to sit on.
Dick slumped down limply, unable to look away from the pair in front of him.
His eyes went to the pup. “Can I…?”
The man that looked like Jason would look if he ever got to grow up (Oh god!) agreed with a nod. He nudged Damian towards Dick and the kid didn’t protest, he accepted the open arms and curled up against the alpha’s chest, hiding his face in the crook of his neck. Dick’s heart almost burst from emotion, this boy wasn’t so tiny anymore, but he was boneless and loose, and looked much smaller than a hardy 13 year old willing to take the world on if the world looked at him wrong.
“Little D…” Dick rumbled, nuzzling the dark head, scenting desperately, looking for any note out of order, but all he could detect were contentment and healing salves.
Damian leaned into the nuzzle like a pup. He was so different, so soft.
“Sedatives?” Dick chanced quietly, peeking up.
“Painkillers,” the omega answered just as quietly.
Painkillers and calming pheromones, most probably.
All too soon the omega removed the pup form Dick’s embrace –Dick wanted to fight it, but had no strength, the pheromones in the air and whatever was in his own blood were messing with his head, too, making him agreeable, malleable. Damian was safe here, that’s what he could smell, safer than anywhere else. He was in a nest.
The nest of his omega who was unlike any omega Dick has ever seen.
Jason was a beta, he remembered that, a scrawny beta pup with a world on his shoulders and so much to prove to his alpha family. Dick didn’t imagine that, did he? He didn’t miss something so monumental about his younger brother, did he?
Then why did this man smell so sweet? Why did he carry the face of a dead bird and the scent of a breeder in his prime? His shoulders were wide enough to strain the elegant tunic he wore, but the low neckline that slipped open when Damian moved in his arms bared a sliver of a pectoral that was softer than it should be… Dick swallowed around the tennis ball stuck in his throat and raised his eyes, because if it was true, if this was Jason…
It was hard to believe he was awake and this was real. That the Heretic didn’t stab him clean through and he wasn’t dying painfully on the ground while his brain was busy cooking up some impossible dreams to help him depart in peace.
Things hurt, though, under the bandages. Dick liked to believe that his brain was kinder than letting him suffer in his last moments.
“How?” The word left his throat like a cry, a sound of desperation and pain, and hope so acute and yet so tired. “How?”
Damian flinched at his tone and even the omega’s eyes softened at the picture Dick had to be making, hunched down as if in pain and twisting his fingers together into a tight knot. It had to be a truly pitiful sight, because Jason shifted the boy out of his lap and then out of the nest. Damian whined and his legs buckled a bit when he was set on the floor, but the protest was silenced with a quick, but tender nip to the ear.
“You need to bathe, bibi.”
“I want to be here!”
“I don't want you here for this conversation. Go.”
“It’s fine, Jaybird, I’ll take it from here.” Roy stepped into the brewing argument and motioned for the pup to follow him. “Come on, kid, I’ll show you around while these two knukleheads cry like babies.”
Damian’s expression was downright betrayed when he turned away from the redhead and eyed his omega with naked suspicion. “Promise… you didn’t mate him,” he whined in despair.
Roy rubbed his chin and winked smugly. “Not that he didn’t try. What can I say, I’m irresistible.”
The look of betrayal on the pup’s face was epic. “You’re not an alpha!”
“Alphas wish they had my pull, kid.”
Worst thing was that Dick knew that some actually did, Roy’s bisexual tendencies and powerful physique made for a powerful enticement for both genders. Damian wasn’t buying it, thought, if the way he sniffed was anything to go by.
“You sound like an imbe…”
“Bi’bi!” Jason’s admonishment was sharp and Dick felt it the pit of his stomach.
From the looks of it, so did Damian. A quick exchange in Arabic followed, words snapped out too fast for Dick to catch, but it ended gently, with Damian submitting to the order to leave the room for the time being. He meekly followed Roy out through the sliding door with little more than one forlorn backwards glance.
Once they were alone, Jason settled deeper into the nest and stayed still under Dick’s scrutiny, and Dick had no idea what to do. All of his analytical processing power was going up in smoke, he was shamefully unprepared for everything about this situation. He shifted closer, then closer still, respectfully avoiding entering the nest fully, but his hands were itching to reach out, so he did.
“That’s… that’s really you? Not a clone? Or a… a...”
The eyes that were more green than he remembered them watched him warily, but Dick’s hands were not stopped, not pushed away...
(Or were these eyes green in the past and he simply imagined the blue? Because his memory of Jason’s face was hazy and he ever paid that much attention to the details on it, and the photographs of the boy were scarce in the Manor.)
...when his fingers rested on the man’s shoulders Dick half expected them to pass right through. They didn’t. He didn't wake up with a gasp from a dream promising absolution only to tear it away as a mere illusion.
This was no illusion, this skin was warm, the flesh underneath solid, muscle stone-hard, alive. It tensed minutely as Dick’s hands roamed in widening circles, as the reality crashed around his ears, bidding him to believe his eyes and nose, because… because it was there. The closer he got, the clearer it was - the scent that hid underneath the sweet perfume and even sweeter omega notes, there it was, the sharp notes out of order.
Dick, with his face shoved underneath the omega’s neck, nose not touching the skin only because Alfred’s disappointment in his poor manners would reach him across the ocean… he could smell it. The family. Jason was Bruce’s son, accepted and claimed, and the scent of it wasn’t something that could be washed off, copied or imitated when it was half-real to begin with.
“Oh God…” Dick didn't even know when his hands framed the face in front of him, why the omega let him so easily. “Jay…”
...maybe because Jason’s eyes were closed and the dark eyelashes were already clumping together from moisture. He was taking slow deep breaths - as much of a breathing exercise as a way to scent Dick back, –and his lips were trembling in a tell-tale sign that they were both emotionally compromised so may as well just…
...just let go.
“Little wing...” Dick sobbed, forehead pressed to the one in front of him, he wasn’t sure whose breath kept hitching, he wasn’t opening his eyes until they stopped stinging. “You’re here… you’re back…”
“I’ve been… been back for a long time, Dickie…” Jason (Jason!) shakily whispered back, pressing against him just as hard. “A long time…”
Well, yes, of course, that made sense. They needed to talk about it, too. They needed to… but not yet...
Oh God, Jason was back.
The ‘kitchen area’ inside of the strange ship was small, but designed comfortably, modern in an alien way that was a far cry from Pennyworth’s spacious kingdom of hardwood and marble. All surfaces were smooth and glossy, and human appliances stood out starkly; even the stool the redhead pointed Damian too was strangely shaped, if not uncomfortable.
Damian took the seat, his mending leg grateful for the reprieve. The redhead offered to carry him and the young alpha threatened to gut him –in the long run it might not have been the best decision, pride did his leg no favours.
He knew that their window of opportunity was closing –it was only a matter of time before Father found them; even less if he decided to swallow his pride and asked the League for help. Damian wasn’t sure of the limits on Kent’s super sight or hearing, but he’d learned along time ago to err on the side of caution and didn’t hope they'll be lucky.
Of course, Father was alright after the fight, no other result was worth consideration. Of course, the family survived the recent battle and they were close to finding Damian and Richard –if not on their way to wherever here was already. It didn't leave Damian with much time to plan, especially that his head still swam with the weakness left over from the battle and the rush of endorphins caused by the recent joyous discovery.
Should they run? A not insignificant part of him wanted to run, to take Jason by the hand and escape the chase, escape their family, to run ahead and remain… just the two of them, like in the old times, unbothered and allowed to just be. He wanted time with his Umm'i that will be taken from him when the others discover the truth, when Father…
Damian didn’t want to admit it, but he was afraid of Father’s reaction to the reveal. He was frightened of Jason’s reaction to Father’s presence –the omega may look resolute and ready, but Damian still remembered his worst days, the states he got into when memories became too much, when the pain was too great to handle.
And there was nothing, he had learned, more painful for both of these men than each other...
A bowl of hot porridge landed on the smooth glossy table in front of him, doctored with cinnamon and chopped dates. He could easily see Jason preparing the meal… like he did in the past when Mother wasn’t looking their way.
“Dig in, kiddo, Jaybird made it, not me.”
The redhead –Roy –was concerning, too.
Easygoing and a bit churlish, but these shoulders didn’t get so wide by themselves, his hands were scarred and rough; and even though he smelled of an omega, he barely looked the part. Just like Umm'i. But he couldn't be like Umm'i, could he? Grandfather wouldn't...
“How do you know him?” Damian tried for civility, even though the questions burned in his throat and his stomach demanded he fills it with hot porridge immediately. “What’s your place here?”
Roy raised his hands in a signal of harmlessness that the rest of his posture didn’t reflect and smiled disarmingly. “Whoa there, cool it. We’re not mates, if that’s important for you to know, kid.”
“Then why are you here, with him?”
“Well,” the man sat down opposite Damian with his own serving of food. ”Some time ago he offered to be my friend when no one else did. I’m simply returning the favour.” The smile on his face was bright, but the eyes above it were not. He was similar to Richard in that respect, even though Richard was an alpha...
Damian’s heart seized painfully. Richard was another person he had deceived, another bond built on a lie. The alpha will undoubtedly connect the dots once the shock passes and the outcome will leave Damian in the position of a culprit.
If they ran now, it could all be avoided. He’d… They’d… Father wouldn't…
Damian didn’t want to leave Father behind, not the Manor, not his pets, not even Alfred, even… even Drake. He was Umm'i’s pup, but they were Damian’s clan and – and Umm'i was, in a way, theirs too.
Did they deserve him? It was the question that for three years he struggled to answer. Their second Robin, their Good Soldier. Unavenged. Misremembered. Left behind closed doors with the dust and photo frames that stood with their faces to the walls.
But he was mourned, too. In a way, they have never stopped mourning him and these days Damian knew that his Father’s love wasn’t as conditional as it would seem and that Richard’s care and attention followed the shadow of bitter regret. That Drake still sometimes saw himself as an insufficient replacement of a child he’d surpassed in skill quite a while ago.
They didn’t avenge that boy (apart from Richard, and look what it did to him) but then, they didn’t have to, did they? Damian was there to take that burden from their hands, because he was strong enough to lift it and carry it with ease, whereas they’d break under the strain. He was just starting to understand that for some, taking life was more than simply a set of motions.
“Hey, eat up, short stuff, or no painkillers for you,” the redheaded omega chipped in.
Damian sniffed. “I’ve dealt with worse pain than this with no medication.”
And it was surprisingly hard to hold a spoon in his off-hand when all his body wanted to do was to slump back into the warm nest and go into a coma. But that was something no one needed to know.
“I bet Jaybird was always happy about it, eh?”
Jaybird? What was it, a pet-name? Unacceptable!
“Where are we? What is this place and who else is here? How do you know Richard?”
“Jesus, you’re all the same, aren’t you? Goddamn Bats and their thirty questions before breakfast.” The omega rubbed a hand over his face. “Listen kid, if you eat everything, I’ll answer your questions, not a moment earlier.”
Hm, so it wasn’t just Umm'i that reached for food as a means of distraction –it had to be some sort of shared instinct. Made sense, when one thought about it, for the omegas to retreat into the role of a provider and caretaker to get a grip on a situation. Jason tended to gravitate towards the kitchens at the smallest notion of distress in the air…
But then, the last three years had shown Damian that not all omegas were the same. Indeed, most of what he knew about the caste was based on his observations of Jason and that itself made his intel questionable, because - Jason wasn’t a normal omega, was he?
Mother’s words came to him, unbidden, filling his head like a miasma over the Lazarus well. The hateful truth revealed to him like a blade stabbed between the ribs that for all of his attempts, he could not silence and discard. He wanted to doubt, to disbelief, but he wasn’t a pup anymore, he was trained in detective arts –and above all else he knew that the truth was the most powerful weapon in an al Ghul arsenal. He knew how to complete a full story form the clues strewn around for all to see if they’d only bother to look.
It was quite obvious, really, and he was simply unwilling to acknowledge it until Mother spoke it out loud and forced him to understand his omega’s tragedy.
Because death wasn’t the end of Jason Todd’s misfortune. What Damian’s childish mind saw as salvation and a blessing, was in reality only a continuation of the boy’s miserable fate.
Jason wasn’t born an omega. He was made into one by a man playing a god to satisfy his pride. Not only was he revived in the Lazarus Pit, with all the terrible consequences it entitled, but then he was changed in a horrific way just so he could play a nursemaid to the Demon’s heir.
“Father’s project, nothing more. A broken doll meant to garner Batman’s goodwill... that he was easy to trick into taking to you was merely a bonus.”
An idiot child, she called him. A blank slate overwritten by base instincts, she said.
It was clear now –the myriad of issues his Umm'i suffered through the years that Damian had blamed on the Lazarus were most probably only partially caused by it, the rest was an effect of the forced change.
What else was forced in the same way? What could a brain-damaged child, desperate to find something in its existence that wasn’t causing it pain, be coerced into? What could such a child be made to believe? That it had a place and that place was steeped in subservience?
Jason was barely out of childhood when Damian met him –it was hard to reconcile, but a truth nonetheless, Jason was not much older than Damian was now, when he was in quick succession: murdered, revived, and given a pup to nurse and care for.
That’s what mother said about it –Jason was tricked into accepting him.
Even if Damian never doubted Ummi’s love, he now doubted its foundation –and he knew that Father will doubt it too, that they will all question it as soon as they learn the truth. They will try to understand and in doing so they will devalue it. Could he risk it? To have the backbone of his whole existence dissected in such a way? Wasn’t it better to just –leave before it happens?
“Hey, kiddo, why the long face? The food is good. You in pain?”
“No, I…” Damian was shamefully short for words. He stared at the bowl of porridge his Umm'i made for him because it was one of his favourite things, and couldn't find words to express himself.
Harper reached over the small distance and his hand rested on Damian’s healthy shoulder. It was wide and warm, but the scent that accompanied it was all wrong. Not bad, but heavier, more spicy than Jason’s, stronger. A born omega’s scent, not… not made up.
“I know that face, kid,” the redhead said seriously. “Don’t even think about running now.”
“What are you…” Damian tried to bluff, but he could feel the corners of his lips pulling down.
“I know you Bats, more than I’d like to, honestly, you’re all not as inconspicuous as you’d like to believe. And this is the face of a Bat confronted with emotions they’d rather not deal with.” The hand bore down. “Don’t run. He’s just about gathered enough courage to step out of the shadows and face that messed up family, don't blow it for him.”
But didn’t it matter what Damian wanted? Didn’t it matter what he stood to lose?
How could it, when he got three good years with Father’s clan while Jason got only pain?
“How… how is he?” He should be asking that from the beginning.
“Good.” The hand retreated and the redhead’s scent calmed down. “Better than he was, at least, and with you here? He’s good.”
“But he wasn’t.”
“Fuck no, not for a while. But he’s getting there, he’s trying to build something for himself. And for you.”
Roy shovelled a spoonful of cereal into his mouth and chewed slowly, cursing his weak heart and his debt of gratitude to the man struggling not to fall apart two rooms to the left. He watched the kid’s bandaged hand tighten into a tight little fist and his mind jumped to his own pup, his heart giving a painful twitch, because these hands were so small… and yet they were already hardened and bore marks of youth spent not with toys, but with lethal weapons. A youth they’ve managed to save Lian from –something Roy was thankful for above all else in his fucked up life.
It tore him apart on some days to know that Jason tried so hard, but didn’t manage to do the same.
“You were always at the forefront of his mind,” he assured the kid. “Never doubt that. He went through a shitload of trouble to get back to you and there’s not a thing he won’t be willing to do to stay.”
“Do you know why…?” The kid asked, his previous eloquence seemingly forgotten.The nest-scent had to be wearing off and it was time for a new dose of meds.
Roy shrugged. “I know some of what happened with your grandpa, but not all. It’s best he tells you himself, though.” Jaybird had to speak to someone about it and Roy had a feeling that ‘someone’ won’t be his pack –not yet, at least. But the poison had to be drained from these wounds somehow and this kid looked like a stubborn one. “Ask him sometime.”
The kid hummed in thought and finally started to eat seriously, which eased the tension in Roy’s omega core, because having a hurt, sad, stressed out pup in his presence that wasn’t eating on top of it all? Yeah, not good for the good ol’ ticker.
“Eat up, kiddo,” he cooed. “Can’t have you here with a full plate when the rest arrives.”
The kid’s head shot up and the green eyes bore into Roy with a truly basilisk stare. Yep, he was Wayne’s, alright. “What rest?”
Goshdarnit, the feeling of knowing more than a Bat never got old.
“Why, the best and the brightest this world has to offer... And your pack form Gotham will show up too, can’t have the big man thinking we’ve been starving his little bird.”
Oops, and the face fell again. Christ, for people known for being dark and broody, they were all so ridiculously emotional.
Damian ate the food, took his medication with only minor grumbling and allowed the redhead omega to check on his stitches, even though Umm'i already did it –he was well aware that trying to stop an omega in a caring mode was a lost gamble, so he stayed still and didn’t even hiss when the bandages were peeled away and his wounds washed through with clean water. When the omega was wrapping him back up, Damian gathered enough mental fortitude (currently crippled by the full stomach and the painkillers) to ask. “Who are the others?”
Did Jason find a new clan while he was on his own? Did he have help when the League turned on him? It would be good if he had at least some sort of support when Damian wasn’t there.
“A few strays Jaybird found on the curb,” the omega answered. “He has talent for gathering these, so it seems. You’ll meet them soon enough, they’re staying away for now, keeping an eye on other things we have going on and the island itself. Jay didn’t want to overwhelm you and get your pack all defensive.”
That made sense, even if it also raised more questions than it answered... but all Damian wanted at the moment was for Dick and Jason to be done so he could get back into the nest and curl up surrounded by the beloved scent. His head was feeling heavy and soon enough he won't be able to…
The wall opposite his chair opened.
The wall that, until that point, had no doors in it. It opened outwards with a little creak and a boy stepped through the passage that closed after him, leaving the wall flat and smooth.
“Mr Harper, Lian is asleep, I left her with a…”
The boy had red hair and more freckles than it should be possible to fit on a human face. He froze in the centre of the kitchen, staring at Damian with probably the same amount of incomprehension that he was getting back. And before Damian had a chance to close his mouth, the boy smiled at him. He was missing a tooth. “Oh,” he breathed. “You’re here! Jay got you back! That’s great!”
Damian allowed himself a moment to bask in confusion.
Roy was right, damn him. They cried like pups.
Afterwards, the questions came, but the answers were scarce and Dick didn’t press too hard, the moment was emotional enough and he wasn’t sure at all how to act around this new Jason. This new adult man he remembered as a boy –a man with a lifetime of experiences so different to everything the family wished for him. The bare bones of the story that Dick got to know and the ones he managed to deduct were terrible enough.
In the end, one question burned in his mind. “Why didn’t you come to us? Why didn’t you come back home?”
Jason seemed to shrink, curling in on himself, turning away from Dick. The sudden distance hurt. “To what, Dick?” He sounded tired, so tired. “First few years I was half out of my mind and didn’t even remember you existed, and then… then I had a reason to stay.”
Damian –went unsaid. The pup that needed care and protection in the Al Ghul household.
“When it all went down, I wasn’t doing that hot at the time. And then… it was easier to keep an eye on things from a distance. You were all good to him and that –he needed that, a family, friends. He’d never have that with me, not while being hunted down by the League.”
“What?” A strange light entered Jason’s eyes, hostile in a way that signalled some old pain. “I had an alpha that took my pain seriously and was honest with me in all the things that mattered back then, what could you offer? Empty platitudes about forgiving that trash for killing me?” He took a breath. “I planned to kill him. To return to Gotham and beat him to death with my bare hands… but by the time I was ready, someone else got to him first, and there was no reason to go back anymore.”
No matter how painful it was to hear, it was a sort of an explanation, because they might have mourned Jason’s ghost, but they never attempted to put it to rest (except, Dick did, once, and see how that almost ended up for him).
But Joker was gone, dead by someone’s hand if there was a God looking upon Gotham. The monster that had broke their family was dead and buried. Had to be. It should mean that Jason could return to them, that there was nothing to keep him away.
What did Ra’s al Ghul tell him to change it? What did the League do to the boy that made him think that he couldn’t...?
“Jay, tell me what…”
“I will, Dickie, but not now, then he arrives. I don't want to have to repeat it.”
It wasn’t. It could still be a ruse –but Dick didn’t want to say anything else. He wanted the distance between them to close, the alpha in him clamoured to be closer to the pup that was lost and now found, to the packmate he had missed so much, even though they didn’t have much time together. When Jason leaned forward again, Dick reflected the move and their foreheads met again, and once more they have stilled in that moment of perfect calm.
Obviously, it was soon interrupted by a clamour of running feet and a torpedo of a pup launching himself into the nest from the doorway. Dick, sitting closer to the edge, caught Damian before too much damage could be done, but the kid wasn’t having it, he squirmed out of his hold, straight into the waiting embrace of his ome… of Jason. Jason, who curled around him with ease that could only be called instinctive and shared a startled look with Dick. A shuffle from the doorway drew their attention and –there was another kid. A thin redhead with freckles and an alarmed expression, and right behind him Roy Harper, close to busting a lung from laughter he was unsuccessfully trying to stifle.
“You got a pup!” Damian’s accusation was weak and reedy, and Dick almost choked.
Jason’s sigh was distressingly Alfred-like. “Dick Grayson, meet Colin Wilkes.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.” The boy –Colin –smiled and waved, and Dick could only smile and wave back.
“He’s a part of the team,” Roy added proudly, resting his hand on the kid’s bony shoulder. “He’s the muscle.”
The kid preened at the words and he could not be more than seventy pounds soaking wet. What the hell?
Just as Dick was about to release a flood of questions, a shrill sound ran through the ship –high pitched, but also melodic. It sounded like an alarm.
“And that's our cue to dust the silvers,” Roy stated lightly, but his shoulders tensed gradually. He pulled the kid away from the doorway. “Come, kiddo, have to prepare for an invasion.”
Jason cradled Damian to his chest, half-buried in the pillows and blankets, seemingly unconcerned with anything that wasn’t his pup –but his face grew pale and when Dick made an inquiring noise and their eyes met, the green sheen had almost overtaken the blue.
“It will be fine,” Dick assured, thought his own heart was slowly heading up to meet his uvula. He could only hope that Bruce –and whatever cavalry he decided to bring with him –will leave them with enough time to explain before allowing his alpha instincts to run amok. “He’s going to be fine. I’ll talk to him if you…”
“No.” Damian sniffled for the last time and bravely wiped his eyes with a trembling fist. Gosh, this whole thing was doing a number on the kid, his scent was all over the place. “I will talk to Father first. I will –I will explain everything.”
...because he was the one who knew all along that the Umm'i was Jason –Dick realised belatedly. He knew that Jason was alive. Knew all that time, saw the memorial case, witnessed their pain and their guilt, and had never said a thing.
Dick didn't know how to feel about it yet, if he should consider it a betrayal or not, but one thing was sure.
Bruce won't like it.
Damian, well aware of his overly emotional and vulnerable state, tried to pull strength from his training and the philosophy the League found credence in. Preparing for the worst outcome was always prudent and in some way tended to calm his nerves before a dangerous mission, instead of the opposite. Knowing how bad things could go and what provisions to make for these occasions, how to turn the possible defeats into draws disarmed one’s fears until something productive could originate from them.
This time, however, the worst outcome was definite –there were no clever tricks Damian could employ to turn the battle around, no ways to escape the battlefield or redirect the flow of combat. This time it was just him, his opponent and the judgement he could not escape. It left him feeling naked and exposed, it left him feeling hopeless.
And also ashamed of himself –that he’d allowed affection of strangers to mean so much; that he got used to his Father’s esteem and clung to it like a helpless child, expecting praise for every deed designed to please his sire and his clan. Shameful, to fear their opinion and rejection as if it meant anything now that Umm'i was back with him and he shouldn't need anyone else.
So why couldn't he look into Richard’s face? Why couldn't he stand the thought of seeing the alpha’s disappointment or, even worse, anger? Richard had an explosive temper and Damian was sure that once the shock dissipates, it will make a grand return to join Father's. Timothy didn't have strong ties with Jason, neither did the females, so there was little to fear there, but Alfred… He could only hope that Pennyworth will be overcome with joy at having his pup back until Damian can build himself back up to not caring about the old man’s opinion.
In time he trusted himself to achieve that state.
He still wanted to know where the redhead boy came from and why was he considered a part of the team when his physique was downright pathetic. His accent was the only clue, the throaty drawl of the Lower Gotham (Did Umm'i pick him up from the Bowery? Was he trying to help the pup? Was he taking care of it when Damian was out of reach?) He wanted to know everything there was to know about the time Jason had spent away from him, but there was simply no time, while Jason was finding him something appropriate to wear (the short pants and the oversized t-shirt weren’t what he’d chose to enter a conflict in, but the shirt smelled of Jason and fit over his bound arm, so he accepted it gratefully). Harper busied himself with doing the same for Richard and then pulled out his tablet and started pressing buttons that, as Damian suspected, managed the ship’s defence systems.
What they expected to happen, he didn't know, but Father wasn’t to be trifled with and being well prepared never hurt anyone.
Then they exited the ship and his breath caught.
When he heard the word ‘island’ he didn't expect –well, he didn't think much of it. The first thing that startled him was his naked toes sinking into the hot sand and the hum of the sea that invaded his ears, loud and close. He had to shield his eyes from the sun that was setting at a blinding angle over an expanse of water as blue-green as Ummi’s eyes. To the side he saw a small area with a picnic table and a few mismatched chairs and a firepit full of ashes, shaded by a rich green canopy. It was a sign of a lived-in place and it eased some tension in Damian’s chest –at least Jason had a place to call home that wasn’t Gotham’s slums or some bare safehouse forgotten by the League; he could spend his nights looking at the clear sky full of stars. Thank goodness.
It wasn’t much to calm Damian’s nerves, but in tandem with Jason’s hand tight around his it did the job of quelling the urge to run when the wind picked up and the sea level in front of them rose by ten feet.
“Alright, so the old man brought backup,” Harper said over the sound of crashing water and palm leaves trashing in the wind.
Jason’s hand tightened over Damian’s. “We expected that.”
“You Bats are can never just fucking knock, can you?”
Backup, indeed. Father was always an intimidating man –his stature and the cape blending into the night weren’t the only reasons, even in the daylight Batman was crushingly imposing the few times Damian stood by his side against some villain or another.
But to stand opposite him? To be the focus of Batman’s piercing stare and to have his full attention like that?
Damian’s legs wanted to buckle and he kept himself upright only because the warm presence at his side was the source of his strength ever since he was a pup. He was an alpha now. Still young, but that didn't matter, his hackles rose when he felt the omega standing next to him shiver at the sight of the three building members of the Justice League crossing the beach towards the ship. He was the alpha heir of his clan and he had to step up just like he did when he was six decided to make Ummi’s nights easier.
It could be worse, but it could be much better –Kent accompanied Father on one side and on the other Aquaman raised his hand, and the wall of water behind their back settled back down as if nothing happened. That was how they found the island, probably.
The two groups were some fifty feet apart when Richard stopped Jason with a daring hand on his shoulder. “Let me meet them first,” he offered at a whisper. “I will calm him down before he jumps to conclusions.” He had to be aware that Kent could hear his every word.
It was clear in the way Superman reached out and stopped Father in his tracks with the same daring gesture.
Jason swallowed, eyes not leaving the black-clad alpha for even a moment. “I…”
“I’m his second, Jay, he’ll listen to me. I promise you that I’m on your side.”
He lied, of course, Damian knew that in the clan there was no sides other than Father’s. But he trusted Richard to keep his word and stop the situation from escalating for at least a while, because the young alpha hated conflict within the pack.
But this wasn’t his mess to deal with.
Jason called out when Damian released his hand and stalked across the sand, as fast as the still wounded leg allowed him, with every step feeling lighter and lighter. Father, alike, tore his shoulder from under Kent’s hand and moved to close the distance. A few feet from Damian he reached up and pushed the cowl off his head, careless of who could see him, a thing so uncharacteristic of the stern man, that Damian’s steps wavered.
The voice that called his name was rough, but not like Batman’s –this was a voice of an alpha seeing his pup alive after expecting the worst. It went straight to Damian’s heart and the boy couldn't ignore the rawness in it, because this was his alpha, his father. He was so emotionally compromised already that when the man keeled in the sand in front of him with his arms opened, he stepped into them and allowed the embrace to close around him. It was a rare and precious thing –apart from Richard, no one had ever hugged him like that in the pack, no alpha had ever handheld him with such strength and gentleness.
“You’re alright.” Father rumbled frantically, pressing his nose to Damian’s temples, scenting his hair and the scrapes on his face. His hands roamed and inspected the wounds on his pup’s shoulders and the sling keeping his arm in place.
Father’s cheeks were scratchy and rough with stubble, so different from Ummi’s smooth skin, but far from unpleasant when it brushed Damian’s cheeks. He wasn’t wearing his blockers and his scent was hot and heavy enough to make one’s head spin.
“I’m alright, Father,” Damian confirmed in a voice so tiny he could barely hear himself. “My wounds were minor and I’ve received medical attention.” He dared to look over the alpha’s shoulder, acknowledging his company with a sour grimace. “There was no need to bring the retinue.”
“I didn't know where you were or who had you,” Father answered calmly. “Forgive me for going out of my mind with worry.”
He moved back a few inches and Damian didn't want to look up at him, but a firm hand grasping his chin didn't leave him a choice. Father looked… he was tired. There was a dark bruise on the side of his face and his lip was split, and his eyes were swollen, as if he hadn’t slept ever since the battle. He probably didn’t.
He didn't look like a strong alpha hero now, he looked like a father of two lost pups.
“Oh.” The sound was as small as Damian felt. “Didn’t Mother…?”
“She… told me. She told me a lot.”
Oh. If his stomach could drop any lower than his feet, it would. They both resolutely didn't look behind, to where Richard and the rest was standing. “Father, I’m…”
“We will talk about it later, son,” Father promised with another quick scenting.
He called him ‘son’, it had to mean something, right?
Damian stayed still when the alpha stood up, the hand on his shoulder grounding him in place. He was too ashamed to look up, too emotional to stand his ground and stop the man from advancing, to return to ummi’s side.
“Dick,” Father called out the name and the sound of feet moving through sand signalled the younger alpha’s presence.
Richard put himself between Father and Jason, breaking the line of sight as easily as breathing, and Damian was pathetically grateful for it. If Mother was the one to tell Father the truth, it was the sharpest form of truth she could forge.
“Everything is okay,” Richard stepped in close and in a show of unrestrained emotion nudged father’s chin with the tip of his nose. “We’re fine. We’re safe, Bruce, I promise you.”
Father’s eyes flew over his son’s form, confirming his words, cataloguing the bruises and bandages much like he did with Damian, making sure for himself that his pups were, indeed, unharmed.
It was just a word, but it was so low and so heavy that the younger alpha moved aside almost without thinking, giving way to his pack leader without protest. He gripped Damian’s shoulder when Father released it and… the world seemed to fall away.
There were only the two of them left –the alpha and the omega, measuring each other like strangers. Father in mourning and his lost pup, twenty feet of sand and a decade of pain between them. But these seemed to disappear also, fall away into nothing when Jason bit his lips and swallowed heavily and his eyes were shining with more than just the reflections of the sunset.
...and Father had to recognise something in this stranger that pulled him in like a line, because he crossed the distance separating them fast enough to make Flash jealous.
Damian turned his face away and hid it against Richard’s side. He didn't want to watch this, it was too much. Too much emotion, too much guilt. Richard pulled him tighter and that helped, but he could still hear the deep, gravelly rumble that rose over the hum of the sea.
“...yeah. I’m –I’m here...”
Damian swallowed a childish whine trying to raise out of his throat. He wished to leave, to disappear, it was better than hearing these broken notes in Father’s voice.
“You didn’t come home…”
“...I didn't think you’d want me.”
He could imagine all too easily Father’s eyes closing in pain.
“…living without you was like a bad dream. I will always want you back, Jay.”
Umm'i cried after that, there was no more words for a long while. Damian was paralysed. He‘d seen Jason cry in the past, it wasn’t new, but never like this, never this quiet sobbing, these weak keens broken only by the quiet thrum of Father’s voice.
You were drowning and you couldn’t breathe. He thought that he finally understood what Richard meant back then.
Of course it wasn’t as easy as that, Dick knew it couldn't be, because Bruce was Batman and Batman could never leave well enough alone. Dick was also honest enough to admit that his own easy acceptance of the whole situation (Jason was back!) was in large part dictated by shock of the recent battle and discovery. Once he properly recovered, he was going to ask his own questions.
And this Jason, as hard as it was to admit it, wasn’t theirs. He wasn’t the boy they’ve lost so many years ago. This Jason was an adult who knew how to fight on par with Dick, who was trained and raised by the League of Shadows, who built himself something of a pack with Dick’s friend and a strange little boy.
First and foremost, this Jason was an omega –and Dick was quite sure that a decade ago that wasn’t the case. Didn’t mean it didn’t make the whole situation even more confusing, stirring up instincts in both alphas. Not to mention, his relationship with Damian –how did it start? Why did Ra’s allow it?
How and when did the Demon’s Head manage to get Jason’s body from under their noses?! Who, or what, did they bury, instead?
After sending Clark and Arthur away with the promises of calling them if any problems arose (After reassuring Clark that yes, this was Jason, and watching his stern expression crumble into relief and wonder, because Superman was there when it happened, he was there for Bruce when he was losing his mind, he saw the effects of the boy’s death from the first row seat) Dick returned to the ship. Roy waited on him by the ramp and offered his arm without a word, for which Dick was grateful. His body still ached and Damian was getting heavier in his hold, Roy’s manly shoulder was a gift.
“Go left,” the omega advised once the door whooshed shut behind them. “I’ll take the kid.” Before Dick had a chance to protest, he picked Damian up and, with a nod to the little redhead, disappeared behind the door to the right that led to Jason’s room.
The pup needed a nest. Good idea.
Dick shook off the tiredness –at least tried to –and went into the direction pointed to him, hoping that whatever he’ll find behind another door won't require his intervention. He was exhausted emotionally and his stomach started to get adamant about the time they’ve spent unconscious and foodless.
Come to think of it, how long was he unconscious?
Fortunately, the room he stepped into was something of a kitchen –and it was so strange to see Bruce there, surrounded by the off-white of the space plastic, sitting at the small table with the cowl off. And Jason opposite him, setting down a bowl of fruit between them. It was all so strangely domestic.
“Sit down,” Jason didn't order, but he didn't expect to be refused. “Before you keel over, Dickiebird.”
God, it was so strange to hear that old nickname spoken by a mature, deep voice of an adult. So strange.
Dick took the last remaining seat and reached for the fruit –the peach his hand came back with was fat and juicy, and he devoured it in three bites. A glance to the left revealed that for Bruce was the fruit may as well be rocks and the whole ship may be painted pink, he was sitting perfectly still and his eyes never left Jason. Just as Dick expected, his alpha’s face was drawn and his eyes underlined by dark circles, his lips were tight and bloodless. Two of his sons disappeared during an armed confrontation, they were lucky that the Batman didn't bring the whole of the League to storm the shore.
No, instead, it was Bruce Wayne sitting with them now, and thank God for that. This situation didn't need Batman, it needed the pack alpha, the father.
Jason, for his part, was looking everywhere, but at them. He busied himself with peeling the biggest orange Dick has ever seen and seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Didn't have to wait long.
“Talia told me,” Bruce started, voice unsure, catching a bit on the woman's name. “Told me… I couldn’t believe, but…”
“But why would she lie?” Jason finished the thought calmly, still not looking up. “She has no need for lies against you, does she?”
Bruce lowered his eyes for a moment. “No, she doesn’t.”
Dick wasn’t sure that he should be a part of this conversation, but he knew that they both needed him there, just as he knew that it would only stress him out more to stay outside. He was Bruce’s first, he needed to be there.
“It was Ra’s.” Bruce didn't ask. “He… he stole you, your body. I don't know when or how, but… he took you.”
“I can’t tell you when, he never told me and I wasn’t… I wasn’t in the state to question it for a long time.“ The peel fell away to reveal plump flesh that Jason’s daft fingers parted gently into bits. ”I came to sanity wet between my legs and with a child in my arms. For the first year or so I didn’t even know he wasn’t mine. He smelled like… like family...”
The unspoken part twisted the knife in Dick’s heart. Damian smelled like Bruce, had to, and that probably made all the difference to the freshly-awoken omega.
“And later… later it stopped mattering that he wasn’t really mine.”
Bruce swallowed loudly, then opened his mouth and closed it a couple times before the words finally made it though. “You were a beta, Jay.”
“I was dead, too. You think that changing this would be an issue for him?”
That silenced them for a few minutes, each regrouping in their little corner of misery. The high from the discovery slowly dropped and they found themselves in the twisted labyrinth of painful truths that had to be spoken and questions that had to be asked.
“Do you know how he did it, why?”
Jason laughed, and it was an ugly, dry sound. “Why do you think? For you!” His eyes, when they finally rose to meet them, were burning blue-green. “This whole… whole charade was for your sake, Bruce! Reviving the dead pup so the father would be in his favour, but then when it didn’t work all the way and the pup came back wrong… well, better make him at least useful by turning him into a breeder!”
“Jay…” The change in tone was too sudden, too startling.
“If not for Damian, you’d have me back years ago. Brain damaged and willing to spread my legs for anyone.”
Jason stopped, breathed out, reined himself in with visible effort. The fruit between his fingers was undamaged. Bruce looked like a man at the verge of breaking and Dick understood why –because he had the same thought. If Jason was given back years ago… no matter his state, they’d have him back for years.
“It wasn’t all bad, though. He was good to me.” Dick could see Bruce’s hands tightening into fists, they both pretended not to notice that his own did the same. “Either by some twisted sense of respect for you or a responsibility to his own… he brought me back and then made sure I was cared for. Without it, I would probably still be a half-vegetable, I think. He made sure I got physio and education in-in everything, I could walk and speak again and no one… no one did anything I didn’t want them to do. And he was the one to give me Damian and let him stay with me… He’s not a good man, but I owe him and I’m thankful for all of that.”
It sounded so –definitive, like a door closing on that part of the discussion. Like a fence built over the answers Jason decided they don’t need to have.
“He’s gone now. Dead,” Dick spoke gently.
“Gone? No, he’s never gone.” Jason’s hand went to his neck, rubbing tightly the back of it. “He’ll be back.”
It was chilling, the surety with which these words were spoken.
“How do you know?”
“He’s Ra’s al Ghul, better than us had tried to kill him. He’ll be back once he finds a new body to take over…”
“…is this why you’ve left? Did he plan to…”
The sound Jason made in response to Bruce’s unfinished question was derisive. “He’d never use an omega.”
“That’s why he wanted Tim,” Dick said quietly, experiencing a revelation.
“Don’t call him that, Jay.”
“Why? That’s what he is – what we all are, post Dick Grayson.”
Their eyes met and Dick held back the harsh words that wanted to slide off his tongue –words he had spoken too many times in the past, to the boy that seemed to live in his shadow, words that, as the years had taught him, weren’t quite true.
Bruce had to realise that the subject started to slip into something he didn't have the capacity to manage, so he pulled the reins.
“So why did you leave the League? Talia was sure you were dead...”
The look in Jason’s eyes grew hazy, as if he was looking into a distance beyond the walls of the ship. It was disconcerting.
“Because he wanted a worthy heir and she was disappointed with how Damian turned out. And I wasn’t going to be an incubator for some little monster they were going to sick on my kit.”
That was all he had to say for now, apparently.
The citrus was peeled, Jason scooped the edible parts into his hands and stood from the table, the discussion obviously over for now. Dick went to follow him, leaving Bruce to chew through the new data, set to keep an eye on Jason at all cost, but getting distracted with all the differences between this man and the skinny beta boy he knew. The ridiculous height, the sheer brawn, the spicy, warm scent, the stoic self-assurance of his moves… the voice, that trilled in a sound so strange and pleasant it sent shivers down Dick’s spine.
Damian appeared as if out of thin air. “Umm'i?”
Oh, sure, it was a call. An omega call. Jesus.
The little busybody probably gave Roy a slip and tried to eavesdrop on them.
Dick eavesdropped shamelessly back as they exchanged a few words in that flowing dialect Damian was raised in and Dick could not for the life of him learn. Then, Jason handed Damian the fruit and nuzzled his head.
It was all supremely domestic and the pup seemed to grow five inches under the tender gesture, his face smoothed out until he looked like nothing more than just a normal kid in a too big t-shirt, completely at ease with his life for the first time Dick had known him.
It was heart-breaking to know that they’ve never met this boy before, that no one did, and that they’d almost lost him for good.
Dick returned to the kitchen, sat down heavily on the padded bench and slumped to the side, leaning his weight on Bruce. After a moment of silence, the alpha’s hand rose and rested on the back of his neck, fingers tight and grounding. It felt good, Dick hoped it helped Bruce, too.
“He’s back, B,” he whispered, closing his eyes when the alpha nuzzled his temple.
“He’s different,” Bruce’s voice verged on despair. “He’s so different.”
“Sure is. But so are you. So am I. We’ve all changed.”
“I don't know…”
“Neither does he. Just… just please, don't bring the Bat into it. They both need their dad.”
“How about you, chum?”
He needed to rest, just a moment to close his eyes and take it all in, to adjust. This was massive, it was going to change the family irrevocably.
“Was Tim even surprised?”
Bruce huffed a chuckle against his temple. “If he was, he didn't show it.”
Of course he didn't.
Damian licked the juice off his fingers before Jason let him back into the nest, his rule of cleanliness remained unchanged. Once allowed in, he curled up next to the omega sitting on the edge of it, hugging his bandaged arm close to the chest and sighting in relief.
“That will teach you to eavesdrop,” Umm'i scolded gently. “Listen to Roy, he knows what he’s saying.”
“He’s not…” Damian started, stopped, re-thought his brash answer. Roy was obviously someone Umm'i held in high esteem, to let him touch the nest and deal with Damian as if he was a pup. It wouldn't be smart to insult the omega. “Is he your new clan?” It was a delicate question, Damian didn't know what answer he’d prefer.
“He’s a friend, bi’bi.”
Clan, then. It hurt a bit, because Damian wanted Jason to be a part of his clan for years now, to learn that he will have to deal with competition…
“And the boy? Is he the omega’s…?”
“Colin? No, Roy has a young daughter. Colin is… well.” Damian curled up and Jason leaned in to nuzzle his head, making him keen a bit. “Don’t be jealous, you’re my pup, but he needed help and we couldn’t leave him on the streets. He’s like I was, an orphan, just a bit more special.”
“Special how?” So far the redhead didn't look like much.
“If you’re nice to him and ask, maybe he’ll show you. Now you have to rest and regain your strength before the others arrive.”
It was frustrating, to not know, to be in the dark when it came to so much of his omega’s life now, when before he knew everything.
Well, not everything. The most important part was… it never occurred to him until Talia… until he eavesdropped on the conversation that happened two doors down and heard Jason’s admission. It should be clear, but it wasn’t.
“What is it, bi’bi? Tell me.”
“Mother said you were out of it,” Damian whispered into the pillow, half hoping he won’t be heard. “Changing. Still damaged… when they put me with you… she said they’ve tricked you into taking me.”
The silence after these words was deafening for a few heartbeats, then Jason slipped into the nest fully and curled around him. “That’s what she told you?”
“Yes.” So cruel, so resentful she was.
“You were a baby then,” Umm'i whispered into his temple. “I don't remember much from that time, but I remember when he brought you –the first time I held you. You were crying and I didn't know what to do. You were so small and so lonely, I could smell it. He put you on my chest and you started to suckle… from a stranger you met for the first time. He tricked you, too.”
“No, I…” It was a ridiculous notion! “I wasn’t…!”
A big hand stroked his belly, silencing him.
“We were both tricked into accepting one another, but that’s just that. He couldn't trick me into loving you if he tried. My hormones made milk, they didn't rule my mind, I have decided that you are my kit and that won't change.”
He didn’t know that he needed to hear it, for so long, but now that he did, it soothed that sharp edge inside that kept snagging his other parts, it laid to rest a doubt that Damian didn't even know existed until Talia spoke it into existence.
“Will you come back to Gotham? With Father?”
“...I want to. Not right away, but I want to go back home.”
So many years and Gotham was still Ummi’s home. That –that was good for now, that he wanted to return.
For now that was enough.