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A Marked Difference

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Tim’s hard pressed to say what, exactly, the worst moment of his life has been so far. Because for a long time he thought he knew, but then a second entered the running, and they’re too close for him to decide.

The first was getting introduced to Ra’s al Ghul at all, all of eight years old, and with all the lack of filter of a child responding to his mother’s reminder that it was a title, not a name, with a much too loud, “I know! I learned the League’s language already.”

An older, smarter, him wishes he’d taken the reminder without comment, and let the Demon’s Head pass him by unremarked upon. Instead, not understanding what he does now, he’d been thrilled to have someone that was suitably impressed by how much he knew, and had no trouble speaking to him in any of the languages he’d already picked up.

It only took a few more years for him to actually understand what he’d invited, getting the all-but-immortal ruler of their neighbouring kingdom interested in him. ‘Interested’ in him, he found out the moment he hit fifteen, and a couple comments about how well he’d grown and how he’d soon be of the age to start accepting proposals dispelled any last shred of doubt Tim had about whether he’d just imagined how deeply uncomfortable he’d started to become every time he had to be around Ra’s.

It’s a small mercy that his soul’s mark, dark red and stark against the pale skin between his shoulder blades, doesn’t match the League’s written language. In fact, it doesn’t match any written language he’s ever come across, which is helpful for brushing off every major proposal that comes his way, but supremely unhelpful in that he still has no idea what his eventual partner’s name even is.

No traveling scholar, magic-user, or instructor has ever been able to even identify the symbols on his back, let alone tell him what they mean.

The second moment, twelve years and several dozen disregarded marriage proposals later, is when the spark of a flame leaps from a candle to his cuff at a dinner. His sleeve goes up in flames, and Ra’s is there startlingly fast, trying to help him tamp out the fire, and then struggle out of his shirt entirely when it spreads to his back before they succeed.

Which is when Ra’s al Ghul, the Demon’s Head, flattens a hand against his bare back and breathes, “Oh, Timothy,” in breathless awe.

Before Tim even understands what’s happening, Ra’s is declaring, loudly, that the mark is in an old, forgotten language that few would even begin to understand. His language, from the cultures before the kingdoms of present were founded. His name. And he flourishes, proudly, the clear scrawl of Tim's full name across the underside of his arm.

That's precisely when Tim redefines what the worst moment of his life has been. He really, in that moment, wishes he had any kind of proof that Ra's is lying. He can feel it in his gut, but there's no one alive that he knows of that's seen as many centuries pass as Ra's has, and he doesn't have anyone to argue the point for him.

His parents… try. How they can. Soulmates are sacred, and past asking why Ra's had never revealed it before — he thought it may have been one-sided, and didn't wish to force 'dear Timothy' into an awkward situation — and for some proof that the language really was Ra's' — there are old texts back in his own kingdom; he'll bring them immediately — there's nothing they can do, even knowing how much Tim hates the idea this could be true. If it is, then that's it. No one would dream of keeping a marked pair separate. He's on his own.

At least he’s got a little bit of time. It’s two weeks to get to Ra’s’ seat of power, another two to get back. Until he comes back with examples of the language, and until he submits to an examination to ensure that the mark on his arm is real, Tim doesn’t have to agree to anything. No ceremonies, no bonding, no… other things. He’s heir to the Drake kingdom; until the marks are confirmed, he doesn’t have to allow anything at all.

He can figure something out within the next month, right? There’s some way to prove that Ra’s is faking it, or… that the marks are invalid because Ra’s is halfway to immortal, or… Something. There has to be something.

If all else fails, he could always try just running away. Maybe he could lock himself away in a tower and learn magic, or something. Might not be too bad.

 


 

Somehow, trying harder doesn’t actually mean he gets any further. Still, nobody can tell him what the language is, there’s nothing in their library, nothing to find. Nothing that’s going to stop Ra’s from coming back with proof, if he’s got it, and Tim’s pretty sure that he wouldn’t be doing this if he couldn’t follow through.

It’s a big lie to tell, otherwise.

He’s got nothing. Three weeks, and nothing. The messenger already arrived to tell them that Ra’s is on his way back. But way before that, he got to hear that the whole kingdom is apparently buzzing with the news that he’s ‘found his soulmate.’ That it’s Ra’s al Ghul, the Demon’s Head. That, apparently, there’s talk of joining their kingdom to Ra’s’ empire, when they’re bonded.

There absolutely is fucking not. He only needs one guess to know who started that rumor, considering it only benefits one person.

Tim sighs, closing the book and dropping his head down onto it. Maybe… he has to accept the possibility that this is really going to happen. He could run away, but then what? Become a fugitive in his own kingdom? Bring Ra’s’ wrath and power down on all his subjects, in his place?

No. He can’t. Above everything else, it’s his duty to protect his people, and running away would just redirect Ra’s’ attention to them. So, he has to bear it. For them.

Well, he’s got another week to find something. Any proof Ra’s is lying, or hells, any precedent for denying a matched mark. Maybe there’s something in the history books, or a tome of law, somewhere. Just because nobody else has found it doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.

Right now, though, he’s getting tired enough that his eyes hurt. He wants to keep going, but there’s a nagging voice in the back of his head reminding him that tired eyes miss things, and he can’t afford that. He has to sleep, or even if he does find something, he’s not going to notice it.

Alright. Out of the chair, out of the library, back upstairs to his own rooms so he can sleep in something actually soft. Maybe he doesn’t get back up until a servant calls him for breakfast. Yeah, that sounds nice.

Stifling a yawn, Tim pushes open the door to his rooms and steps through, rubbing at his eyes. It shuts, latches, and he drags himself a blind step forward before dropping his hand.

There is someone in his room.

Tim sucks in a breath to yell, to call for guards, and the figure lunges at him. A hand presses over his mouth, the second tangling in his hair to hold him still. Blue-green eyes flash under the shadow of a black hood, much taller than he is.

“Shhh,” the man hisses, nails digging in against his jaw. “Quiet; I'm not going to hurt you.”

Tim doesn’t think, he just bites. As hard as he can.

The man jerks his hand back with a sharp hiss, but before Tim can do more than draw another breath he’s being shoved backwards. His back hits the door hard enough to hurt. He grabs for anything he can reach, ends up with his fingers wrapped into the cloth at an arm and near a side as he tries to remember who he passed coming up, who’s close enough to hear it if he—

“I said quiet,” the man snarls, hands pressing him into the wood, and Tim is really all set to scream anyway but then teeth flash in his face, sharp and long and decidedly not human. With them comes a rumbling growl, deep enough he feels it vibrate through his hands.

Some suddenly very awake part of Tim’s brain decided that now is the time to be very still and shut his mouth.

The eyes aren’t right either, now that he’s staring at them. The pupils are too narrow, not as round as a human’s, and they’re bright. Vivid, even in the shadows of that hood pulled over his — it’s? — head. There’s not someone in his room, there’s something. Something with sharp teeth and bright eyes. (And he bit it. He just bit it.)

The eyes blink, and then the creature says, low and still slightly a growl, “I’m looking for Timothy Drake. Where is he?”

Tim blinks back. He has exactly enough mind behind the panic to ask, “Why?” instead of just blurting out that it’s him.

He gets pressed a little harder against the door, has to exhale hard and then try and drag another breath in. He tries not to imagine those teeth at his neck, or really on any part of his skin anywhere, even as the creature snarls and leans weight down into his shoulders.

“He’s my mate. Tell me where he is, before I lose my patience.”

Everything grinds to a halt.

Tim stares, sure that he must have hallucinated that. Maybe he fell asleep down in the library and this is all one very real fever dream. Or maybe this is really happening but his sleep deprived mind just filled in the words he desperately wants to hear someone say over whatever this creature actually wants. Because there’s absolutely no way that he really said that. Not even remotely a chance.

“I’m sorry,” Tim hears himself say, remarkably calm sounding considering his brain feels a bit like it’s thinking about exploding right out of his skull, “could you repeat that?”

The pressure eases away a little bit as the creature stares at him, snarl fading into a frown. “Timothy Drake is my mate,” is repeated. Slower, unmistakable, and Tim comes to the conclusion that this is either real, or he’s having a full on hallucination and if that’s the case, why not play along?

He’s aware that it sounds a little hysterical when he says, “That’s me. Timothy Drake. Tim.”

It’s a little relieving that the creature looks as confused as he does. “You’re not—” He leans in, sniffs him as Tim flails slightly and chokes at the sudden proximity. “You’re human. Oh.”

His, “What are you?” is a little embarrassingly close to a squeak.

The man releases him, stepping away and shaking off the loose grip of his hands. The hood is pushed back, and underneath there’s short black hair and a face that, if he couldn’t see the eyes or the hints of teeth, would look just like a normal, fairly good looking man.

“I’m a dragon,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Then, before Tim can process that piece of information, “Why is your last name Drake if you’re human?”

“I don’t know, it’s a family name.” Tim blinks, pieces clicking together in his head. “You thought I was a dragon? But, my name’s Tim. That’s not a normal dragon name, is it?”

For as tall and big as he is, the ma— dragon sounds almost embarrassed. “No, but some of our kind have human names, when they’re raised in chains, or forced to remain in human form. Could have been that."

"Is it… a problem that I'm human?" Tim asks, cautiously.

"No, I just, didn't think about it. Race doesn't matter to us." A sharp huff of breath, and Tim stares at the flicker of embers that come with it, winking out long before they hit the ground. "My kind don’t share, though. You’ll have to get rid of your other mate, or I’ll eat him."

"My— I'm sorry, my what?"

"Your other mate," the dragon — his dragon, apparently — repeats, narrowing eyes at him. "That's how I found you; the humans on the streets were talking about a Drake finding his mate. The Demon's Head?"

Oh. Oh.

"Ra's," Tim starts, his teeth gritting, "is a liar, and he's not my marked. I just didn't have any—" He stops in his tracks, stares at the apparent dragon standing in front of him. "Proof."

What proof does he have that this is real, either? Someone claiming to be a dragon just shows up in his room, also claiming to be his soulmate? How is he supposed to trust that any more than Ra's' declaration? What if it's just some other kingdom's attempt at taking him hostage, or trying to make Ra's think he ran, or…?

It comes in a flash.

He shifts forward, taking one testing step to the side and, when he's not stopped, heading for his desk. He's got ink and parchment in here, he knows he does. If this stranger can write the symbols on his back, without presumably ever seeing them, that'll be enough evidence to at least start to believe this is real. If they're letters in some kind of dragon language, that would at least explain why no one else has ever been able to recognize it. Dragons are rare to begin with, as far as he knows, and he's never heard any mention of them having any kind of a written language. (Did Ra's know that's what it was, or was he just capitalizing on the fact that no one else could identify it?)

Rummaging in a drawer gets him ink, parchment, and a quill that isn't too badly worn down yet. Good enough.

The dragon's followed him over to the desk, and Tim turns to him and slaps a hand down on the paper as he demands, "Write your name."

He looks a little quizzical, but there's no argument. Tim steps back to give him room, watching the slightly awkward grip of what he's now realizing are clawed fingertips. No wonder they felt sharp against his jaw. Still, awkward grip or not, the sweep of the quill is confident in beginning to draw, quickly sketching out the symbols that Tim knows by heart. Faithful in every curve and every strange, sharp angle.

And then there it sits. Scrawled out in ink, nowhere near as neat as the precise copies done by him or some of the scholars, but real. Everything that matters is accurate.

His breath escapes him in a small, shaky rush.

“What does it mean?” Tim asks, reaching out to touch the paper, longing to touch the name itself but knowing better than to put his fingers in fresh ink.

His dragon grunts. “It doesn’t translate well. How we speak includes body language, tone, and visual cues. As close as you could get in just your words would be… Firelight Reflecting in Fresh Blood.” Tim blinks, looking up. The curl of a smile doesn’t make him recoil this time, even if it does bare all those teeth again. “I go by Jason, to other races. None of you pronounce my real name right anyway.”

"Jason's less of a mouthful," he agrees. Now that he's not scared he's about to get murdered, Tim takes the time to take a longer look at 'Jason.' Pretty tall, short black hair, the bright blue-green eyes, mostly covered in a long black cloak, and with black clothes on beneath that too. The only skin bared on him is his hands and head; even his neck is covered in a wrap. Tim's mouth works on automatic, offering, "I looked a lot of places for the language my mark was in, but I have to admit dragon didn't really cross my mind," as the sweep of his gaze finishes.

Is Jason still human looking under the clothes? Is he wearing them to blend in, or because he'd be immediately recognizable as 'other' without them? Actually, nevermind that, how did he even get into the castle? The gates are shut, this late, and surely his guards are better trained than to miss a stranger in all black clothing slipping into the castle and then just staying here, for hours. Hopefully they are, anyway.

Jason’s smile shifts to more of a grin. “Our language is older than your civilization, but we usually don’t share it with anyone else.”

“Usually?” Tim echoes, focusing on that choice of word.

He breathes in as Jason shifts closer, leaning down a bit. “We’re possessive,” Jason says, reaching down to take one of his hands and bring it up. “We don’t share what’s ours, except with those that are part of us.”

Lips press to his knuckles, and Jason’s gaze meets his, holds it. Then, before Tim has time to react, his mouth parts and exhales a stream of fire over his hand.

He yelps, trying to pull away but unable to with the grip on his hand suddenly tight. His sleeve is on fire, it’s licking at his skin, it—

Doesn’t hurt.

Jason straightens up a bit as Tim stares, instinct still screaming that he needs to get the flaming cloth away from him as soon as possible, but warring with the rational part of his brain. The part that’s watching the flames play over his skin and… not do anything. It’s hot — he can feel the heat, absolutely — but no pain, no burnt skin, nothing.

Cautiously, half expecting his nerves to catch up at any moment, Tim lifts his other hand and presses his palm down over the flame. Nothing. Half dazed, he pats the rest of the flames out, until there’s just the charred remains of his sleeve, and his own, perfectly unmarked skin.

Okay, that’s… interesting.

“Is there something about dragon fire I don’t know?” he asks, slowly lifting his gaze to Jason’s.

He makes a noise that’s sort of like a low rumble, that Tim can almost feel in the air more than actually hear. “Probably, but not this. No mate of a dragon can be harmed by fire; our magic protects you, just like it protects us.” Jason turns his hand over, and then lets go of it to trace fingers up the underside to the crook of his elbow. He shivers at the faint scrape of the claws. “My mate. Everything I have is yours, and yours is mine.”

It occurs to him, looking down at Jason’s hand clasping around his arm, just below the remains of his ruined shirt, that this is not the first time he’s been set on fire in recent memory. Very conveniently set on fire, in fact, which is not the first time that he’s had that thought. It was the one thing that didn’t fully make sense, when he considered that Ra’s might have set the whole incident up just to get him to show his mark, to make the announcement of his claim publicly, in front of witnesses. Fire’s not hard to start, with magic or otherwise, but controlling it? He could have been badly hurt by that.

But if Ra’s knew that his mark was a dragon’s… If he knew that Tim couldn’t be hurt by fire…

Tim looks again at the claws on his arm, and then up, at the vivid shade of Jason’s eyes. A dragon, hm?

“How would you feel about helping me with something?”

Jason grins.

 


 

In the week that follows, Tim gets to know Jason a lot better. He sees his own name written down the top of Jason’s arm — only showing up after a wash of flame makes it visible in a shimmering gold, which is apparently normal for dragons — and lets Jason see his, feeling actually comfortable with that for the very first time. It doesn’t give him that faint, wrong feeling in the pit of his stomach when Jason touches it, fingers gentle and reverent, tracing the lines of it.

For actually being an enormous, deadly predator — that Tim gets the pleasure of seeing under the guise of a ‘short ride to clear his head’ outside of the castle’s grounds — Jason is surprisingly gentle. Oh, he’s stronger than any normal human could be, but he seems to be very aware of the limits of a human body, and despite hefting Tim around on occasion (which is very nice), he never leaves him with so much as a bruise or a scratch.

He does explain, though, at Tim’s request, that being the marked mate of a dragon comes with a few more things than a human one. A shared lifetime, for one, on top of a portion of all the magic that Jason’s kind lives and breathes. Immunity to fire and faster healing, first and foremost. There are definitely some perks to this.

But, the very best part is Ra’s still showing up, a week later. Right on time.

He brings two scrolls with him, written in what Tim can now identify as Draconic. Very old, mostly well preserved. They serve well enough as proof that Ra’s knows the language, or is connected to it, somehow.

Unless, of course, you’re aware that they’re stolen pieces of history from an entirely different race. A very possessive, very dangerous race.

Tim does his best to play his part; just a helpless prince waiting for the inevitable confirmation of his marked pair, not wanting it, but unable to do anything to stop it. Outplayed at every turn, by the far superior strategist. Clearly.

He does regret, a bit, not letting his parents in on the whole thing, but he trusts his own ability to act more than theirs. Their tight-lipped, concerned distress is real, as Ra’s’ scrolls pass the examination of their scholar. Then worse, when he emerges fully clothed from the private room with the healer and resident mage in tow, both of them confirming that there are no other marked names on him, and no spell work has been done to fake Tim's name on his arm. None they can detect, that is, because Tim is completely certain that it's all fake. However Ra's did it, though, he honestly doesn't care. He has his proof, and that's enough.

If he needed anything else, watching Ra's pass their final test would be enough. He writes the name without error, but specifically without error. It's a careful, perfect copy, and the precise shift of his hand is miles away from how Jason scrawled it.

"We accept your claim," his father finally has to say, looking at the written name. "You're our son's marked; we allow the match."

His mother stands tall and cold behind his father, and doesn't say a word. Her eyes, however, promise some type of murder.

Tim does wish he could reassure her, but it won't be long now. Everything's going to be fine.

Ra's approaches, clearly assured of his victory, and loops an arm through one of Tim's. "Shall we make this official, then?" he asks, the sickness of his smile feeling like it's rubbing off on Tim's skin through just the touch of his hand.

He's brought some of his varied officials as witnesses, of course, and neither Tim nor his parents had any hope of keeping their own nobles from beginning to circle. They have a right to be here, after all, to see what the future of their kingdom may become. And in this case, Tim doesn't at all mind the extra eyes.

Tim's practiced the words, so they come out perfectly resigned, slightly bitter, when he answers, "I'd like to do this outside. The gardens?"

He can practically see the victory light up Ra's' eyes. More space for witnesses? Of course he'll agree, no matter what he assumes Tim's motivation to be.

"Of course, my beloved. Whatever you desire."

Let everyone assume it's just so he can have one last breath of free air, before his life becomes tied to Ra's' whims. No other reason.

Ra's' lackeys must spread the word far and wide, because by the time they arrive in the garden there's already an audience spread along the edges of the walls, waiting for them. The green and gold of the kingdom of the Demon's Head, and the much less regimented colors of their own nobles, mixed together and whispering to each other; a low buzz that blends together to make most words in it indistinguishable.

Tim glances up at the open sky, clear and blue. Then a bit further down, towards the top spires of the castle. The sun blazes just behind them, making them nothing more than shadowed outlines, even when he squints. He drops his gaze back to the stone of the path and the backs of his parents, as they lead the way to the clearing around the fountain at the very center.

Ra’s only lets go of him when they’ve reached it, and only to take his hands when they turn to face each other, fingers clasping around his to hold him.

“Are you ready, Timothy?” Ra’s asks, as both his parents take their place just a few feet away, side by side.

“Is there another choice?”

Ra’s’ mouth curls up a bit, but instead of answering, he looks to Tim's parents. “Please, begin when you’re ready, your Majesties.”

After a moment, they do. Tim listens to the speech they give, words traded off between them in the same formal ritual that still exists among the nobility; stiff with memorization, with none of the heartfelt care that should be there. He knows the words, even if he’s never done anything with them but memorized them in a book. It’s all about the joining of life, the twisting together of two lives into one, and he follows along in silence until finally the ceremony calls for an actual response. A chance for a last question, for each of them to clear any secrets and begin life anew, as one.

Ra’s looks down at him, fingers clasping tighter for a moment. “I have no questions I will not enjoy learning the answers to on my own. Do you, beloved?”

Yeah, just the one. “Are you really going to do this, Ra’s? Insist that you’re my marked?”

The clasp of hands doesn’t hurt, quite. Ra’s smiles. “Haven’t you seen the proof yourself, Timothy?”

It’s not an answer, not really, anyway. Or, it’s an answer to both versions of the question. Yes, he’s seen the proof that Ra’s is committed to this. He’s not going to win anything by playing to the conscious of a man that doesn’t have one.

“That’s all I needed to know.”

Tim steps back, breaking Ra’s’ grip with a yank of his hands. For a fraction of a second he doesn’t think Ra’s is going to let him go, nails digging in against his skin, but then he seems to think better of holding on. Instead there’s the faintest trace of wounded offense in his expression, only a half-step forward taken to chase him.

“Timothy?”

“Tim, what are you doing?” his mother asks, tone a true mess of emotion and restraint both.

“This man isn’t my soulmate,” Tim declares, loud enough that at least some of the circling nobles can hear it too. Sure enough, the whispering kicks up again, as if the insects in the garden have all decided to start buzzing at once. “It’s all a lie.”

Ra’s’ eyes narrow, just a touch. “That’s a very serious accusation, beloved. You bear my name, and I yours. I understand that it’s difficult to be bound to one so much your senior, but you’ll see the truth of our bond in time.”

“Oh,” Tim starts, as a shadow sweeps over the garden, “I know the truth already.”

The first scream is from one of the gathered audience, and he’s sure there are more, but they’re all drowned out by the deafening roar from above. Tim doesn’t need to glance up to know what’s happening, considering he planned it. He keeps his gaze on Ra’s, standing his ground as the Demon’s Head finally gives him a flat, unfriendly look. If he needed any further confirmation that Ra’s knew the real language on his back, that would be more than enough.

A hand grabs his arm and tries to pull him away, and it only takes a look to identify it as his father. He can’t hear anything, under Jason's roar, but he can see the desperation in his expression, see the movement of his mouth as he presumably shouts a plea to leave. Tim shakes his head and pulls his arm away, and the horrified look his dad gives him does ache, just a little. But, he needed the reactions to catch Ra's unaware. They'll be fine. They'll forgive him.

The crack as Jason’s wings snap out, catching the air to slow his dive, is loud enough to hurt Tim’s ears. He watches Ra’s take several steps back as Jason’s wings beat, wind rushing over the gardens before he settles to the ground at Tim’s back with a thud he can feel up his legs. His dad's backpedaled too, back against the fountain where his mother is half-collapsed against the stone, eyes wide. He hears the crunch of bushes as Jason takes a step forwards, long, clawed paw appearing at the edge of his vision. Then, a moment later, the other joins it, framing him between them. Tim can feel the vibration of the growl Jason lets loose deep in his bones, a low rumble of sound that makes Ra's take another small step backwards, though he has to know there's nowhere for him to go at this point.

He sees Jason's legs fold in a crouch, just before his head lowers into view, just at his side. Bigger than he is, with the same beautiful red scales that Tim now understands to be the reason for Jason's real name. A deep, dark red that shimmers in the sun, with a hint of flickering orange in its depths, just the same shade as dragon's fire. He has no idea whether it's a trick of the light or some kind of magic. The growl finally ends as one eye, massively larger but still that exact same shade of blue-green, looks briefly at him before returning its attention to Ra's. Teeth show then, sharp and vicious, heat and the glow of flame already spilling out from the depths of his throat. It stays leashed, though.

Tim lifts a hand and rests it as far up as he can reach, at the crest just above his eye where there are miniature spikes. Mostly dull. "Thank you, Ra's, for leading me to my actual marked. Your lie spread my name all across the kingdoms; on every tongue, in every corner. Without that, he might not have found me."

Ra's looks from him to Jason with very thinly veiled disdain. "I don't know what delusion you've fallen under, Timothy, or what enchantment, but you must know a beast can't be your partner. This creature can do nothing but cause destruction."

That last part is louder, aimed in the direction of his parents.

Jason snarls, threads of flame licking out over his tongue. Tim calmly pushes his sleeve up over his shoulder, and when Jason parts his mouth a little further, shoves his arm right into the flame. It still makes a little bit of his brain panic, but he's tested this, repeatedly. He can touch fire, coals, anything at any high temperature, and not be more than uncomfortable at the worst.

"Tim!" his mother shouts, jerking forwards even as he pulls his arm back, careful of Jason's teeth. Those, he does not have any immunity from. Found that out, too.

"It's alright!" he calls back, lifting his untouched arm above his head for everyone to see, including them. "A dragon's mate can't be harmed by flame." He looks back at Ra's as he lets his arm lower. "But you knew that before you set me on fire, didn't you, Ra's?"

Ra's smiles, thin and without any more pretense of a lie. "I admit, I rather hoped that I'd be able to bring you to my own seat of power before the two of you had your fated meeting; we have the tools there to capture and control his kind, and a bound dragon is always useful." Jason's snarl is deeper this time, but Ra's seems unconcerned. "Still, it's rare that I meet someone as clever as you, Timothy. A shame you won't join me, at least for now."

"Ever," he corrects, immediately.

"We'll see. You may find that keeping a dragon satisfied is more than you bargained for, dear boy. They do tend to be rather ravenous beasts. Greedy.” Ra’s looks to his parents, dipping his head in the closest thing to a bow Tim’s ever seen him give. “Your Majesties, thank you for your hospitality. Our borders will remain open for trade, should you find you need anything in the coming days. More livestock, perhaps. A pleasant day to you both.”

He turns, strides a single step, and is stopped in his tracks by the burst of flame that Jason spits out against the path in front of him.

“Before that,” Tim starts, as Jason lifts out of his crouch and steps forward, “he wanted to know where you got those Draconic scrolls. Though given what you said, I think he’s come to his own conclusions.”

Jason’s claws scrape the stone as he steps onto it, circling to face Ra’s head on, with his wings stretched high and casting large shadows beneath him. He’s hissing, and Tim would be tempted to make a comparison to the kitchen’s cat, except that he’s pretty sure that no cat in the world could make Ra’s al Ghul look something like hesitant. He’s also pretty sure that he’s never admired a cat like he’s admiring Jason right now. It’s just… it’s beautiful. Jason’s beautiful.

Tim swallows, and makes himself tear his gaze away from the glimmer of scales under the sun so he can say, “As someone who knows dragons, I’d assume you probably know their feelings on anyone trying to take their mates, too.”

Ra’s looks to him, and as Jason’s hiss ends and the inhalation begins, says, “We’ll see how long you last, Timothy.”

The flame engulfs him.

It’s not instant, but watching, it only takes a couple moments for the blackened, charred form to collapse to the path. Jason steps over it and releases a second breath, blasting the circle until the stone melts to rivulets, and when the flame finally stops, there’s nothing of Ra’s’ body left but the scorched, bubbling stone beneath. Jason snorts, wings folding down against his back as the wired tension leaves him.

It’s hard to doubt what he just saw, but those last words refuse to entirely leave Tim’s mind, even as Jason moves back to him. Ra’s didn’t sound like a man about to die. He’s been alive for centuries; maybe there’s something to his immortality beyond the physical form.

Whatever it is, Tim finds himself believing that this won’t be the last time he meets Ra’s face to face.

Jason’s head lowers enough to nudge against his shoulder, and Tim lifts his hand automatically to touch the underside of his jaw. Then, belatedly, he turns the direction of his parents. Right, now comes the rest of… everything.

“There are a couple things we need to talk about.”

His father still has wide eyes, and is staring at the slowly cooling stretch of melted stone where Ra’s was. His mother is the one to stand up straight, turning her attention and focus to Jason for a few moments before looking to him.

Her voice is cool, even if her hands are clasped together in a nervous tell Tim recognizes. “Yes, I believe we’re owed an explanation, Timothy.” Her gaze flicks to Jason once more. “Several of them, in fact.”

“I’ve got them.” He glances around the garden, to the nobles and Ra’s’ people still clinging to the very edges. “Maybe we can get everyone else away; speak privately?”

She looks too, and takes a measured breath. “Agreed. Jack, dear, come on; get up. We have work to do.”

Tim takes his own breath, letting his attention come back to Jason as his parents move to speak to the nobles, or guards, or whoever. Jason’s watching them, but a stroke of Tim’s hand along the underside of his jaw gets him the focus of the massive eye just beside his waist.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, and means it. He breathes out, and it feels like his shoulders finally come loose with the exhale, the tension he’s been carrying there ever since Ra’s claimed him as a marked finally easing.

He feels the rumble through his hand more than hears it, and he can’t quite explain how he knows, but something tells him it’s a pleased sound. Self-satisfied.

He smiles. Yeah, that’s about how he feels, too.