Damian Wayne has an approach to life he’d like to charitably refer to as business-like. Todd refers to it as being an anal hardass. Drake refers to it as ‘slitting first, desecrating corpses later’ which is a typically inaccurate assessment; wasting the time to desecrate a corpse is the exact kind of thing Damian’s business-like attitude means he has no patience for. What a pointless expenditure of energy and resources which reeks of instability.
This disciplined way of combat and life where the only emotions to be felt on the field of battle are pride and controlled rage is one of the main reasons Damian had such difficulty adjusting to the role of Robin. Robin doesn’t just take down bad guys, he quips whilst doing it. His entire fighting style down from the cape to the smoke bombs is flashy and only a tedious erosion of instilled practicality has allowed Damian to adapt. But he has adapted because he is a Wayne, an Al-Ghul and more than that, he is Robin.
(And he’d be lying if he said the wise-cracks and explosions haven’t grown on him into something resembling fun).
Despite this, Damian still, at his core, is not willing to suffer fools or the convoluted plots they cook up for the sheer purpose of their deranged aesthetics. And the most deranged and convoluted aesthetic of all is that of the riddle.
“I am everywhere but you cannot see me. I am touching you but you cannot feel me. I reveal everything but have no substance to be revealed. What am I?”
“One well-aimed punch away from permanent brain damage.” Robin growls.
“Tut, tut, tut, little bird.” The Riddler giggles with a sticky spray of blood. “Wrong! Two more guesses. Two more guesses before…” He trails off teasingly. “Well, that’s a game for another time.”
“I’ll bring forward that playdate.” He offers, unsheathing a shiruken and making a move towards the chair the Riddler is strapped to.
“Robin.” Batman warns and with a sigh, Robin pre-emptively puts the blade away. “Although the comebacks are coming along nicely, no need for knives.” He cracks his knuckles. “Punches leave less of a scar.”
Just for a moment the Riddler’s bruised and bloodied face gulps and Robin feels a prideful rush of satisfaction. “No need for any more of that. It’s just a riddle, Batman, and you asked me a question.”
“For which I’d like an answer.” Batman growls. “So we’ll try again. Who are you working with and what is the purpose of that machine?”
The machine, Robin thinks darkly. He sends an unconscious glance to the glowing archway standing at the centre of the grimy warehouse in which they find themselves. He and Batman have been tracing its construction for weeks throughout Gotham, picking up on transfers of radioactive material and post-Cadmus alien tech. They don’t know what it’s for yet, but practically every crook in Gotham has now had a part in its construction. Whatever it is, it isn’t friendly.
How irritating that all their searching has led them to the most frustrating and incompetent villain in the whole city. It’s like executing a wild goose chase only to discover the goose was a tiresome duck all along.
“I told you who I’m working for and you’ve still got two more guesses!” The Riddler says as if they are being ungrateful. “I am everywhere but you cannot see me, I am touching you-”
“We’ve heard the riddle!” Batman snaps. “I want a straight answer!”
“If I did that I’d undermine my whole theme!” The Riddler practically whines. “Cut me some slack, it isn’t even a trick. I am telling you who I’m working for, if you can solve the riddle.” He shifts uncomfortably in his bindings, his bowler beginning to come askew. “Now if you could just loosen these pesky ropes a little-” Without another word, Batman and Robin turn to privately convene.
“Something isn’t right.” Robin says immediately. He’s been feeling uneasy since they arrived at this warehouse and found the machine sitting practically unguarded and tantalisingly simple to commandeer. Perhaps it was something about its eerie, pulsating glow. “This was too easy. The guards were practically amateurs and there was nowhere near the manpower anticipated for such a large scale operation.” As if to punctuate his point, he reaches out and kicks one of the unconscious guards in the side. He doesn’t so much as groan.
“You’re right.” Batman says instantly, with confidence and Robin feels his chest swell. “You wouldn’t trust Riddler with something as important as this. I don’t think he’s lying about his riddle being the answer to who he’s working for, the man’s a liability.”
“Tick tock!” He calls from across the room, head lolling mockingly. “Have you solved my riddle yet? Time’s running out!”
“Why wouldn’t there be more guards?” Robin questions again and he can tell Batman is thinking the same. They simultaneously reach the same jarring conclusion.
“Time’s up!” The Riddler cackles, throwing his head back so his hat tumbles to the ground. “Sorry about those last two guesses, boys, I suppose you’ll have to save them for a rainy day. If you live to see another, that is.”
Batman instantly pulls up the external security camera feed on his wrist computer and switches with the speed of a blink from image to image until they find what they’re looking for. Whilst Robin had been researching the warehouse and surrounding area, he had noticed that an incoming motorway route had been road-blocked by police and hadn’t thought much of it, assuming there had been an accident and considered it convenient blundering civilian traffic was less likely to get in their way (or in harm’s way, Robin amended, which was of course more important). He now realises being so dismissive was a deadly mistake.
Marching down the motorway is what Robin can only describe as a small army. Several hundred men armed to the teeth, dressed like SWAT teams in bullet proof vests, helmets and visors and amongst them some of Gotham’s most notorious villains. Robin catches a flash of red and green that can only be Green Ivy, recognises the lumbering gait of Mr Freeze and his whole family of frost-related rogues and dozens of the commonplace criminal, scraped out of Gotham’s back alleys into something resembling a formidable force.
There are also armed vehicles adorned with machine guns powering across the concrete and every now and again Robin sees a glimpse of helicopter wing in the skies above.
Batman swears softly. “Quarter of a mile due North and moving fast. It was a trap.”
“This was my error.” Robin says softly, feeling mortification pool in his chest. Abruptly, he turns to the Riddler who is giggling with an even greater, more infuriating hysteria, smile threatening to tear his face in two. “What are the scum of Gotham doing convening on this spot? Speak, cretin!”
“I told you! I told you!” He chuckles and Robin aims a powerful punch at his jaw. He can’t muster any guilt when it knocks him out cold.
“He was our only source of information.” Batman chides, deceptively calm.
“He was delirious, and irritating me.” Robin spits. “Can we call for back up?”
“Red Robin, Oracle and Batgirl are on the other side of the city working a case and Red Hood isn’t exactly at my beck and call.”
“We have other allies.” Robin admits reluctantly. Normally he’d never be able to stomach grovelling to another hero for help, but these are extraordinary circumstances.
“No one’s within range.” Batman says, pressure building behind his voice. “It’s just you and me, Robin.”
Neither of them even bring up the possibility of fleeing. With so many villains in one place, a plot is about to be executed of dangerous magnitude. To leave now could condemn Gotham to its death.
“You and me.” Damian echoes before scowling at his own sentimentality, even as Grayson smiles. “Correct. More importantly, what can we do in the limited time presented to us?”
There’s a beat of silence in which Robin almost imagines he can hear the oncoming rumble of the enemy’s marching feet.
“The machine.” He decides. “That’s the catalyst to all of this. If we can disable it, that may debilitate whatever fiendish force is at work here.”
“If it were that simple, we wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near it.” Batman reasons. “Instead we’ve been given prolonged access. Whoever created or commissioned it is confident in its security.” He grins and brings up his wrist computer again. “Let’s see how confident.”
Robin doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to seeing the Batman smile, but it’s always a welcome sight. No matter what the situation, it means things are about to start going their way.
“Robin, barricade the doors.” He orders as he begins inspecting the monitor of the machine. “That will buy us some time. Once that’s done, prepare to fight. You may have to defend me whilst I hack.” Suddenly his screen glows bright red and alarms begin to blare from somewhere up above. “You will definitely have to defend me whilst I hack.” He amends, mouth pressing into a tight, concentrated line.
Robin nods. He can’t do much but release hardening foam to secure the doors, and yet he knows first-hand of its effectiveness. He’s been trapped in it once before when he was in an argument with Drake that swiftly got out of hand (as most of their arguments seemed to). It was practically impenetrable from the outside or inside. Of course he had eventually manged to escape when Alfred had formulated the correct solvent and then there had been hell to pay but he doubts many of the soldiers are carrying highly corrosive substances. Or he sincerely hopes not.
He returns to Batman’s side and pulls out his escrima sticks. He wishes he could exchange them for swords but his partner had insisted on the less destructive weapon, at the time posing it as a challenge to make a gentler form of combat equally devastating. Robin had succeeded, naturally, but an exhilarated, anxious part of him yearns for the bloodlust and effortless cut of steel. Nothing makes him feel safer but nothing also makes him feel less like Batman’s partner, less like a hero.
“I’m making progress.” Batman informs him. “Just… not fast enough. The surface tech I can recognise, but it’s as if at its core this machine is from a different planet. It’s reacting in entirely unpredictable ways.”
“We could always just blow it up.” Robin suggests innocently.
“Radioactive material.” Batman says shortly. “Unless we want Gotham to be the next Chernobyl, we can’t risk it.”
Robin shifts from foot to foot, tightening his grip on his sticks. He’s now certain he can hear the army’s approach. He’s not deluded enough to believe their only weapons are the ones coming up on the camera feed. With so many super villains involved, who could tell the extent of their arsenal?
The dynamic duo will prevail, he insists internally. He will not allow the scum of Gotham to overcome them, especially as it was his mistake to overlook the blockade. He feels a surge of mingling guilt and fury. He will not put them at risk again.
“Yes.” Batman hisses and Robin turns to see the words ‘Access Granted’ emblazoned in bold print across the machine’s monitor. “Cadmus tech. Always overlooks a back door. Now all we need to do is disable it-”
It is at this moment that a force like a battering ram shudders the warehouse doors. Robin curses darkly. The foam holds, but only for the moment. He breathes deeply in anticipation and feels his limbs twitch with energy. Batman has turned coldly silent as he sets himself entirely to the task at hand, switching directly to the machine’s monitor and ploughing through its system.
“It can’t be disabled!” He growls as a second attack is levelled at this doors and cracks splinter through the foam like lightning strikes. “There’s no override! Who builds a machine this complex with no override?”
“In which case, create an override!” Robin says furiously.
He lets a shuddering sigh out through his nose and begins pounding at the monitor again. With a rattling explosion, the doors are blasted open. Robin does not hesitate. He charges.
He has knocked out two men before the rest even have time to aim their weapons and then dedicates his attack to causing as much havoc as possible. He never focuses on one individual too long to ensure their focus remains on him. A few filter past but out of the corner of his eye he sees Batman make short work of them. For a few precious seconds, the battle appears to be on their side.
Then Mr Freeze appears in the doorway and Robin has to retreat to avoid being encapsulated in ice. The enemy gains ground. Calling on an adrenaline-fueled reservoir of strength, Robin leaps up and impales a birdarang into his helmet, causing him to stagger backwards as fractures appear in the glass. However, as soon as one super villain falls back two more appear in its place with Green Ivy rising above the soldiers enwreathed in vines and Clayface blundering through his own men to strike at Robin with his hammer fists.
These are some notable heavy-hitters absent, Robin notices, and those who are present are those most easily bought and manipulated. There must be a mastermind as the Riddler had alluded. But who?
Eventually, as the flood of armed men only continues to swell, Robin retreats back to Batman, ignoring the super villains’ taunts to play. “Progress?” He demands. All he receives is a grim shake of the head in return as Batman turns from the infernal machine and raises his own fists.
“No.” He says, the gruff, dangerous tone of voice every inch Robin’s Batman. “Guess we’ll be fighting conventional.”
And they charge. Robin loses himself in the crack of bone and the constant ache of his fists and feet as he strikes, dodges and ducks in and out of the soldiers. The soldiers either fire sparingly or in all directions and again Robin feels himself struck by how amateur the force seems, contributing to the idea that this is but one patch of a bigger picture. Still, even Batman and Robin cannot dodge the bullets indefinitely.
It is Batman who is shot first and Robin feels him slump momentarily by his feet, realises the bullet imbedded in his partner’s torso would have struck his back. His rage flares anew as Batman stumbles to his feet and he roars “Cowards! Shoot for the head or don’t shoot at all!”
“Don’t give them advice!” Batman says but there’s no anger behind his voice, only a wince. Robin does not know if the bullet was stopped by the Kevlar. The uncertainty alone is enough to make him cry out with fury and he takes down the next soldier with a particularly savage blow to the head.
They fight on for a further minute at least, although it seems to both stretch out endlessly and pass in the blink of an eye. Robin can feel Batman lagging, his punches becoming sloppier, his aim deteriorating and is aware he is not faring much better. They can’t keep this up, as much as it grieves him to admit it, and as many soldier as they take out, more only emerge with fresh weapons, an inexorable supply.
It ends with a gun pressed to Batman’s temple and Robin backed up to the machine. His breath comes in harsh rattles and his whole body seems torn between exhaustion and a self-supporting ire. He is bleeding in various places, the blood soaking through his suit and, now that he has a moment to pause, the bruises and cuts ache and sting like pernicious insects.
Curse Grayson and his recklessness, Robin internally seethes. He cannot seem to go five seconds without putting himself in some form of mortal peril. Despite this, seeing the weapon against his partner’s head makes something else emerge in Robin’s stomach, something he tries immediately to quash but arises sickeningly once more: fear.
“Surrender, Robin.” Green Ivy, says a honeyed laugh on the tip of her tongue. “Or Batsy’s brains go boom.” She clicks her fingers and the soldier holding the gun thrusts it more insistently into Batman’s skull. Robin’s breath hitches.
He has two options. One: surrender and go against every lesson and principle that both his training as an assassin and hero have instilled in him. Or two: turn the tables. Damian Wayne has an approach to life he’d describe as business-like. And the first rule of business is you never make a deal on someone else’s terms.
He raises his hands, an escrima stick in one and a birdarang in the other as if to drop them. Instead he brings the stick down hard on the machine’s monitor and throws the birdarang straight at Green Ivy.
She ducks, which is thankful because Robin doesn’t really want her death on his conscience and Batman takes the opportunity to wrestle the gun out of the bewildered soldier’s hand. With one sharp jab, he’s knocked out.
However, the relief Robin had felt at the release of his partner immediately sours as the machine begins to hum with the force of a thousand bees. Its glow intensifies and as Robin tries to move away, he realises it is beginning to radiate a force that is pulling him in.
“Batman!” He yells but Batman is battling Two-Face and when he turns to look at him, he only narrowly avoids a punch to the jaw. Still, Robin recognises that look on his partner’s face and in the meantime fires a grappling hook that connects to the rafters and anchors him, even as the pull of the machine strengthens.
The archway begins to glow with pure white light that bathes Robin’s legs in a warm, dissociative sensation that scares him more than any pain could. He swallows down the panic and watches as Batman knocks out Two-Face only to almost receive a blast to the face from one of Mr Freeze’s cronies (Kid Icicle? Junior Icicle?).
“Hold on, Robin!” He yells and Robin resists the urge to yell back that there’s not much else he can do. That would be childish, sarcastic and Grayson would be delighted. Batman, Batman would be delighted. He re-secures his grip on the grappling hook as it begins to slip…
For a moment, time appears suspended and Robin becomes entirely weightless. Green Ivy waves at him, a cruel smile across her ruby lips, the ends of the grappling robe held in each hand, torn apart by one of her thorns. The sensationless feeling extends to Robin’s torso. He watches Batman’s head fly up too late, a hand reach out uselessly and his mouth silently form the word ‘No!’ as bright light encroaches on Robin’s vision.
His own mouth tries to create a name, his partner’s or his guardian’s he cannot tell, as the machine swallows him up and everything turns to white.