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The King's Guard

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The Royal palace, Markovburg
The beginning of King Brion Markov’s reign
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The first night Brion assumed the crown, he did not sleep.

Adrenaline ran through his veins as he looked back at what he had done. Those hands had summoned a surge of fire and rage, and he gave his traitorous uncle a taste of it until lava incinerated the man from the inside out.

Magma overflowed and poured out of the traitor’s eyes and nostrils before cooling, becoming hard like the exteriors of his meta-powered skin. Anguish and fear etched onto his stony face at the moment of death.

But that righteous execution wasn’t the reason for Brion’s sleepless night. Neither was claiming his twin’s throne for himself. No, that’s simply what his country, his people, required of him. Even now, fervent chants of “Karalis, karalis!” rang in his ears.

It was her eyes. The way Violet looked at him like he was a stranger. After all they’ve been through, you’d think she knew enough to not fear him.

It was his dear sister, Tara’s betrayal--known to so many but withheld from him—even after he dedicated his life to her “rescue”.

Brion was dimly aware of the journalist that snuck into the royal courtyard, who was in the right place at the right time to record the battle for the world to see. Brion didn’t care. He bared his heart out and extended his hand to Violet and Tara. Love, forgiveness, a promise of a brighter future, he could have given them all that and more now that he’s king. Instead, they turned their backs on him when he needed them the most. They all did.

Exhaustion gripped him the next night, and Brion staggered back to the empty palace like a husk. After a day of press conferences and meetings, the silence that greeted him was an unsettling change of pace. Without thinking, he found himself at the door of his old bedroom.

The sight of his childhood bed beckoned him, and Brion wanted to embrace the comforting oblivion his pillow promised. His personal belongings laid around the room, a snapshot of his last night here almost a year ago. It was likely brother’s insistence that kept the room untouched, preserved. Between the two of them, Gregor had always been the sentimental one.

Their mother had kept their sister’s old room the same during the long years of her absence, after all. Spending time in Tara’s room helped her deal with the loss. Alas, while the room had remained the same, Tara was no longer the sweet sister he remembered. The girl who had been trained to spy and kill had no time to play with the dolls sitting patiently at the head of the bed. Likewise, his old room no longer reflected the man he was.

Brion turned around and kept walking.

Traditionally, the king and queen’s bedroom was the largest one in the palace, as was proper. Brion learned that even after his brother became king, he did not take their parents' bedroom for himself, opting to use his old room instead. He was not his twin.

Generations of his family were born within these palace walls and just as many had died in it. Ghosts lurked in every stone, and Brion knew where to look.

The last peaceful night he spent here was cut short by the sound of gunfire. He had woken up with a jolt and rushed to investigate the commotion with Gregor in the hallway. The assassin had already been dealt with--Brion deliberately avoided staring at the dead man’s face--and the pair of them sprinted to their parents’ room in time to see their mangled corpses displayed on the bed.

That felt like a lifetime ago, and in a way it was. Now, Brion stared into the empty bedroom and in his exhaustion he saw his parents again—not the way they were, but a vision of them in the moment right after their deaths: dark blood formed rivets down their pale limbs but their empty eyes followed him as he walked to the bed where they were slain. He could not falter now. Markovia needed its ruler, and kings are not scared of ghosts.

“I avenged you,” Brion whispered to the bloodied forms. “I even found Tara, and—and I’m going to make everything right.” But his declaration of victory rang hollow; he was alone in the room.

The room itself looked the same before his parents’ assassination. What could not have been scrubbed clean were replaced, just like Tara and his own room had been preserved long after its occupants left. Every item in its proper place. Even the duvet on the bed was still his mother’s favorite one, lilac with trimmed laces. It was as if they went on a trip and will be returning shortly.

But he’s the king now, and he could not afford such sentimentalities. Tomorrow, he will order the royal attendants to clear the rooms of personal effects and box them up for storage, but for now, Brion allowed himself to sink into the massive four-poster bed. He steadied his breathing—in...and out—and closed his eyes to shut off the look of disapproval on his parents' ghostly faces, imaginary or not.

Brion must’ve fallen asleep, however restless it was when a light tap on the bedroom window woke him. He sat up and slid out of the bed, alarmed and completely awake. It was still dark, but a draft shifted the curtain just enough to let in some moonlight. Brion sent a blast of lava from his palm toward the movement behind the drapes.

His heart pounded in his chest. He had powerful enemies before he became king, and as king, he knew his enemies would come for him sooner or later now that he publicly renounced the Justice League from Markovia. But he was not that helpless teenager anymore, the past year saw to that. Brion’s silk sleeve burned away as he prepared another handful of lava.

“Come out and face me!” he yelled.

A figure hopped off the window sill gracefully, unthreatened at the sight of the lava. “There’s no need to singe the royal draperies, your majesty,” the voice chuckled, drawing out the last syllable in a light laugh. “I’m not your enemy.”

The first blast of lava had burned a hole right through the heavy curtains, shedding more light into the dark room. Brion could see the intruder now: a young man around his age, unmasked, dressed in a dark leather jacket and trousers. His outfit blended in with the night, but it wouldn’t have looked amiss among a crowd out on a casual night either.

The young man was alone and he held his hands to his side, palms open, to show that he’s unarmed. But even without a weapon, a person with meta powers could kill just as easily, and Brion wasn’t going to die the way his parents did. “Who are you?” he demanded, ready to attack again.

“My name is Jason Todd.”

 

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Hall of Justice
8 months ago...
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“Oh, our first field trip!” Violet cheered. She hooked her arms around her teammates’ on either side of her. Brion didn’t like to be dragged along, but her enthusiasm was infectious and he found himself following her up the steps of the grand entrance with something like amusement. Artemis and Dick followed behind them.

“Forager is looking forward to learning more about the Justice League of Earth!” their bug-like teammate chimed in. Despite his current human appearance granted by the magical glamour charm, the hard exterior of his mandibles clattered excitedly at the sight of the founding member statues. “But not just heroes of Earth! Forager knows that there are heroes from Mars, Krypton, and Thanagar as well!”

“Don’t get too excited just yet, we’re here to see a memorial first,” Artemis beckoned the newly formed hive to join her in a side room. Their mood became solemn as they approached the row of digital holographic depicting dead heroes.

“We brought you here to pay respect to those who sacrificed their lives...but also to help you understand the gravity and risks we all take every time we go on a mission,” Dick offered with a soft sigh.

“That’s the Robin uniform!” Forager gestured to the large yellow “R” on the chest of a masked teenager on display. “The one Nightwing wore before Nightwing became Nightwing?”

“Yes,” Dick filled his lungs before turning to face the figure in question. “That’s Jason Todd, the second Robin...my successor. He was killed during a mission.”

“He was so young,” Violet whispered, the tip of her fingers pressed against her lips.

Brion looked at the holograph and wondered out loud, “I don't see any names. And you display the likeness of these dead heroes in their masks and uniforms? How could you honor them when their identity remains hidden?”

Artemis was standing in front of a statue dressed in bright yellow, and she answered without acknowledging him, “In life and death, they represent something greater than themselves.”

Brion stared at the face of the second Robin and thought, god, imagine being memorialized for all eternity with a scowl on your face.

 

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The Royal palace, Markovburg
Now
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“Jason Todd,” the king repeated the name and scoffed. “More ghosts.”

“Oh, so you’ve heard of me?” the young man flashed a grin. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they found a use for me even after I died. So, what was it? Did someone tuck you into bed and tell you the story of how I screwed up, was that it? A cautionary tale for good little boys and girls signing up to be heroes?”

Brion ignored the question and narrowed his eyes. The young man before him was taller and broader than the holographic statue, but there were some resemblances. If this was someone impersonating the dead Robin, they took the hassle of aging him up.

The lava in his hand had cooled into a lump of volcanic rock and Brion tested the weight of it on his palm. “You died,” he stated with an arched brow.

”Died, got better,” Jason shrugged. “I figured someone like you could wrap his mind around the dead returning to life, especially since your teammate, Halo, accomplished the same feat.” At seeing the shock on Brion’s face, he elaborated, “I read the reports by Dr.Helga Jace. Interesting...a girl brought back to life by a Mother Box. No wonder everyone wants a piece of her.”

Brion bared his teeth at the mention of Dr.Jace. “So you work for The Light?” He questioned.

“Wrong,” Jason said, crossing his arms. “And before you continue down that train of thought, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that we’ve met before. Infinity Island. I fought for Ra’s Al Ghul then, but now I hold allegiance to no one: not The Light, not the League of Shadow, and definitely not the various factions of the Justice League. I am here representing myself.”

Brion recalled the battle on the island where he and his hive fought the Demon Head and nodded, “The red-hooded ninja, yes, I remember. Why are you in Markovia?”

“I’m here to pledge my services to the king,” Jason said, bending forward slightly in a mockery of a bow.

“Do you have meta abilities, or have you returned from death imbued with some mystical power?” Brion peered at him with skepticism. He soon got his answer from Jason’s silence and sneered. “You couldn’t even protect your own life, but you think you can help me?”

For a brief moment, the nonchalant mask Jason wore splintered and was replaced by something darker, then it was gone.

“Make no mistake, Markov,” Jason said evenly, “You’re nothing more than a puppet controlled by forces beyond you. Once you’ve outlived your usefulness, those behind the scenes will sever their strings and you’d be ousted and charged with treason so fast the Flash will have trouble tracking it. Face it, you are as much of a king as I am a damned prince of Gotham.”

Brion wasn’t a fool. He knew his claim on the crown was still heavily disputed among the international community and he could use allies. Yet, he had learned a few things about betrayals during his unofficial banishment from Markovia. He glared at the young man by the window and hissed, “You expect me to trust you?”

“Me, not at all,” Jason stepped forward with a glint in his eyes. “But trust that you have what I need to achieve my goals. To that end, I will do my best to protect you until that’s done.”

“And what is it you need?”

“You’re going to help me lure Batman to a place of my choosing, at a time of my choosing,” Jason said, his eyes cast downward to the ground and a wry smile appeared on his face. “And depending on how the reunion goes, I’m gonna kill him.”

Brion let out a bark of laughter and shook his head in disbelief. “Mother of goat, now I know you are delusional!”

Even if Brion had publicly banned vigilantes from entering Markovia, to knowingly make an enemy of the Bat would mean throwing self-preservation out of the window...yet, the look of grim determination in Jason’s eyes piqued his interest. “Let’s hear your plan.”

 

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The Next Day
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“I must object, my king!” Ambassador Zviad exclaimed. He thrust a finger at the new captain of the royal guard, a man the king introduced only as the Red Hood. “We can’t just allow a stranger, a-an outsider to join your inner circles during this time of uncertainty! Why, his accent doesn’t even sound Markovian, there’s no telling what sort of agenda--”

Brion held up a hand to stop his protest. “Ambassador, like you said, these are uncertain times, so excuse the need for secrecy. I assure you that Red Hood is more than qualified to ensure my safety,” he said, nodding once in Jason’s direction.

It wasn’t a lie. Jason was trained by some of the world’s finest fighters and strategists, and he had seen him fight Nightwing on an equal footing. Even now, Jason was standing beside him, playing the role of the dutiful guard. But while the young man was wearing the traditional ceremonial uniform, there was one notable difference: the red headgear hiding his face.

Jason had wanted to wear a black, nondescript suit that was the standard attire of the security guards, not something as flashy as the ceremonial uniform. Brion wouldn’t budge on this matter, however, he was the king and had a point to make. Eventually, Jason donned the red outfit with a scowl. Besides, the red uniform suited him, even if the only spare they found on such short notice was too tight around his muscular thighs and shoulders.

Brion made a mental note to have a tailor to adjust Jason’s uniform and continued to address the disgruntled politician before him. “I alone know Red Hood’s identity to ensure he couldn’t be bribed or threatened into betraying the crown.”

“This is most unorthodox, your majesty,” Zviad pressed. “And what is this rumor I heard about you ordering Dr.Jace off the palace grounds?”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that international diplomacy isn’t her forte; her talents are best used elsewhere. I might have issues with her methods, but not with her results. I’ve tasked Dr.Jace to come up with a more...humane way to trigger the metagene without putting undue stress on the human volunteers. Markovia must go in a new direction, one that will embrace the possibilities afforded by a skilled force of metahumans. Dr.Jace agreed and was eager to continue her research.”

Zviad turned his attention to Jason and said, “While I can’t fault the reasoning behind that, am I to assume our new guard captain was the one behind this idea?”

“Are you questioning the king’s decision?” Red Hood stepped forward with a hand on the sword by his hip. The diplomat sputtered and fixed his glasses, avoiding his gaze. Even with his voice modulated by the headgear, Jason’s tone lost none of its intimidation as he continued, “Rest assured, the king is in good hands. I will perform my duties, and as will you. There’s an empty seat at the UN council waiting, Mister Ambassador.”

Zviad turned to the king, but Brion dismissed him with a smile and a nod, “You must represent Markovia’s interests at the world stage, now more than ever. Convince the leaders of other nations that this regime transition is smooth, yes?”

“Of course, my king,” the man bowed with clenched fists.

“Good. I shall not forget your service in these trying times, ambassador. Nor your loyalty,” Brion added as an afterthought and leaned back on his throne.

Right on cue, Red Hood gestured to the entrance of the throne room and said, “Sir, your plane leaves tomorrow, 7 AM. I trust that you can make your own arrangements there or do you need my men to help you pack and escort you to the airport?”

“I can make my way there,” Zviad huffed with indignation. He adjusted his suit and made his way quickly to the door without a backward glance.

“I see that you’re making friends everywhere you go,” Brion commented after the politician left.

“There’s something suspicious about him.”

“Right, says the person hiding his face,” Brion scoffed. “Say what you want about the ambassador, but he was crucial in garnering public support when I took the crown. The man has his uses.”

Yet, despite that, Brion couldn’t forget the role Ziviad played in urging his brother to exile him a year earlier when his meta powers first manifested. He didn’t trust the man, but he withheld his opinion to see if Jason would reach the same conclusion.

“Speaking of being useful, it wouldn’t hurt for you to be nicer to Dr.Jace,” Jason mentioned. “Sending her away so she couldn’t spy for the Light is fine, but she could be more useful, don’t you think?”

“And what will you have me do? Some would say I’ve exercised restraint already by giving her a second chance. It’s more than she deserves,” Brion bristled.

“You told me that she sees you as her own child after triggering your metagenes. Use that! I’ve seen the way she looks at you, a smile would go a long way. Or is emotionally manipulating a woman beneath a king?”

Even with his expression hidden behind his mask, Brion could sense Jason smirking. He threw the question back at him, “She was the cause of much pain and suffering. Are you able to call a viper like that mother?”

“Absolutely,” Jason replied without hesitation. “Words are tools. Your reluctance to use it will not stop others from using it on you. After all, I do the whole song and dance of calling you king, don’t I?”

Just another reminder that beyond his professional demeanor and subservience, Jason was using him as a means to an end. Not that Brion needed that reminder. They both entered this arrangement with their eyes wide open.

Brion sank back into his throne and asked, “Were you always an asshole, or did you gain a mean streak after you came back to life?”

“No doubt you’d think my self-assessment is biased, so I’ll be sure to ask Nightwing or Batman for their opinion next time I see them,” Jason fired back.

The door to the throne room opened and a squad of guards arrived to meet their new captain. Right before they came within earshot, Jason leaned over and whispered under his breath, “And try to resist the urge to stare at me so much, your majesty. You’re making me blush.”

“I wasn’t--” Brion sputtered, but no excuse came to mind. He did find his eyes lingering--too long--at the way fabric hugged Jasons’s well-toned muscles, and it wasn’t just because the ill-fitting uniform was an eye-sore. He swallowed whatever paper-thin defense he had and sighed. Besides, the flush that crept onto his cheeks was a dead give-away.

 

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“What you’re saying is that you have nothing,” Vandal Savage remarked with displeasure. “A man arrives out of nowhere and dismantles the plans surrounding the king and you don’t even know his motives, skills, or his name?”

“Red Hood. The king called him Red Hood,” Zviad gulped.

Instead of packing for his travels tomorrow, ambassador Zviad had called for a meeting with his fellow members of The Light. Zviad adjusted his glasses and faced the screen on his private laptop, currently displaying the other members.

The man had enough self-awareness to know that it wasn’t his meager meta abilities that got him a seat among an exclusive group whose members are some of the most powerful people on the planet. What he had was his influence on the king, and even that was at risk thanks to an upstart with a red bucket on his head.

The lone female member among them, Queen Bee, chimed in. “Gentlemen, while we seem to be in agreement that this new player is not someone from the Justice League, the name Red Hood does ring a bell. Are we sure it’s just a coincidence and not related to the original owner of the name?”

“It’s not the Joker’s MO,” Vandal answered her. “And he has been inactive ever since he was returned to his cell in Arkham Asylum. He hasn’t been in contact with anyone that could follow through a plan like this with minimal supervision.”

Lex Luthor turned to the Markovian Ambassador and asked, “Your power of...persuasion was invaluable in pushing the young prince to embrace his urges. Could you not use it again to expel this...Red Hood?”

“It’s not so simple,” Zviad shifted uneasily under the scrutinizing gaze of his formidable peers. “My meta abilities work on emotions. It was easy to stoke the flames of vengeance and rage and funnel it at a man responsible for his parents’ murder, but this, for reasons unbeknownst to me, the king trusts the new guard captain. Without knowing why, I cannot risk swaying him; it might trigger cognitive dissonance that--”

“It’s only one man. Are we not The Light?” Queen Bee hissed. “Let’s send Lady Shiva to eliminate this guard and be on our way. Your presence beside the new king is instrumental in getting him to agree to a political marriage with me, so we can unite the forces of Markovia and Bialya. Timing is of the essence, before the king turns to other allies, such as the pretty young queen of Vlatava, for example?”

Lex Luthor interjected with a polite nod, “While I remain a proponent of our plan to bring Markovia under your rule, my queen, the fact of the matter is we do not know who this man is. If he has indeed thrown a wrench in our plans then at least we know he is a person of some capabilities. Seems like a waste of talent to not at least learn his identity before making a decision.”

“While I have faith in Lady Shiva’s skills, I would nonetheless like to nominate myself for the task of meeting this Red Hood.” Everyone turned to the new speaker, Deathstroke, whose one-seeing-eye passed over them with a slow, piercing gaze. “Recruit him, kill him, whichever we decide.”

“Any reason this particular guard piqued your interest?” Luthor narrowed his eyes.

“While I do not claim responsibility for losing our asset, Tara Markov, many of you no doubt point the blame at me. So, let’s call this a reminder of what I bring to the table,” he replied.

“Very well,” Vandal Savage acknowledged Deathstroke before turning back to the ambassador. “Do whatever is necessary to uncover the identity of this guard. Pry the hood off his head if you have to.”

 

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Brion stared at the plates of meticulously prepared dinner before him and frowned. He had no appetite, even though he hadn’t eaten since that morning. With some effort, he summoned the motivation to slice a piece of steak and forked it into his mouth.

This dining room wasn’t the one they’ve used to hold banquet halls and receive guests; it was the one for informal family meals. Yet, the modest-sized room felt sparse and empty with only Brion sitting at the head of the table. A few waitstaff stood by the side watching his every gesture, waiting to refill his glass or clearing empty plates. Jason, too, was standing nearby doing an effective display of someone subservient.

Memories of sharing meals with his parents and siblings at this table flooded back. Proper etiquette was observed, of course, but it was one of the only places where his parents were able to shed their royal persona and acted more like father and mother to their children. Unwelcome memories. Brion distracted himself by chewing and swallowing his food, forcing it past the lump in his throat.

Even back when he lived with his “hive” in an alien spaceship, mealtimes were an occasion, to say the least. Both Violet and Forager were beyond enthusiastic when trying new food. The bug-like alien would often compare what he’s eating with food back on his planet. Licorice reminded him of a staple from home and eating it helped soothe his homesickness. And while Forager’s eating habits couldn’t grace a king’s court, Brion still enjoyed his teammate’s unfiltered delight when he ate. The alien even had a sweet tooth, which was only encouraged by the treats Violet shared.

Mealtimes only got more rambunctious after they moved in with the Outsiders in Garfield Logan’s well-stocked suite in Hollywood. Even if the team didn’t eat together all the time, there was always a crowd in the common area, be it watching TV or just socializing. Cyborg liked to watch Football games, even if he would sometimes wear a forlorn expression on his face. Blue Beetle and Kid Flash would bicker over hidden stashes of snacks in the kitchen, while the others gossiped over their latest social media posts.

“Join me for dinner,” Brion gestured to Jason with a tilt of his head. “Please,” he added after the other man remained still.

“No thank you, your majesty. I’m on duty,” came the unsurprising response.

Brion scoffed. He turned to the waitstaff and asked for another set of plates and cutlery before dismissing them with the instructions that they were not be disturbed. After the last staff left the room, he tried again. “It’s just us now. Remove the mask. Eat.”

“It’s not just for concealing my face, you know,” Jason complained. “It has various safeguards custom built-in. So, if your old friend Miss Martian were to send a psychic blast, for example, or someone throws a gas grenade through the window, I could still drag your ass to safety.”

“The king orders you to sit and eat,” Brion repeated dryly and gestured to the seat next to him. “Besides, if you’re so committed to playing the role of the guard, shouldn’t you be checking my food for poison?”

For a moment, Brion thought he would continue to refuse, but after checking that the room was indeed clear, Jason reached to unclasp his red headgear. “Tyrant,” he said without heat and ran a hand through the mop of dark hair that was revealed before sinking into a chair.

Brion only had brief glimpses of his face when Jason officially introduced himself in the dark bedroom, otherwise, he had kept his face obscured to hide his identity from others. Now in the brightness of the dining room, Brion was disarmed by how aesthetically pleasing the young man’s face was. He wouldn’t describe him as a “pretty boy”, but his strong features were handsome in an unrefined sort of way. Brion looked away. He wasn’t gonna be caught staring again.

“This nom de guerre of yours...why Red Hood?” Brion said, trying to make conversation. “Why not something like Hot Lava?”

“What? Why would I call myself Hot Lava, that doesn’t even make sense. Red Hood represents unfinished business, that’s all.”

“It’s just an inside joke,” Brion dismissed with a shrug. Without warning, Violet’s face appeared in his mind. The last time he made this joke it had been with Victor Stone, who had the same reaction as Jason. Violet had been beside him then, and she turned to him with a twinkle in her eyes and smiled at their shared memory. Brion thought he might get sick.

“It’s not an inside joke if you’re the only person in the conversation who gets it.” Jason rolled his eyes. “Sounds like a Grayson joke. Was it?”

“One of my own, actually.”

“Then you got infected by his brand of humor. Terminal and incurable, unfortunately,” Jason snorted. Brion thought that was the end of it, but then Jason asked in a quieter voice, “After our fight on Infinity Island, did...did he recognize me?”

Brion tried to think back then shook his head. “He didn’t show any indications, no.”

The answer didn’t seem to surprise the other man, who pursed his lips and nodded absentmindedly. Silence settled over them until Jason spike again, without looking up from his plate, “During the years your sister was gone, you never gave up on her, not even after the investigations into her kidnapping came up with nothing. You then risked everything, your status, your life, to try and save her.”

It wasn’t a question, and Brion wasn’t sure how to respond. “Yes, and look at how Tara repaid me. Working as a double agent while pretending to be the same sweet sister,” he sneered. The pain of her betrayal was still fresh and he didn’t wish to dwell on it.

“I wouldn’t be so hard on her,” Jason commented. “Deathstroke can be very convincing. He knows when to be firm and push, but worse, he knows when to be gentle at exactly the right time.”

“You know this Deathstroke?” The familiar heat of anger rose within Brion and he all but spat his words, “The man who trained Tara to kill and ordered her to betray the team?”

“Yes,” Jason answered him evenly, undisturbed by the undercurrent of anger in the king. “Before he replaced Ra’s as the leader of the Shadows, Slade was the enforcer for The Light. He trained me, briefly...taught me to be lethal. I believe the plan was to use me as a spy the same way Tara was used. But the plans changed when I left with Ra’s after he was ousted from The Light.”

“Would Deathstroke recognize you in disguise, mask and all? Would he know it’s you by my side?”

Jason pondered for a moment, his fingers drummed the table before answering, “He might, especially if he gets a chance to see me in combat. But he’s a mercenary at heart; even if he knew it was me, he wouldn’t give up this information to The Light freely unless he gets something valuable in return.”

“Can you defeat him in battle?”

“Straight on? No. Here, at a place of my choosing after I’ve had time to set up traps...maybe,” Jason smiled. “Only an idiot would engage Deathstroke in a fair fight, but I wouldn’t engage him unless necessary. He isn’t my target.”

Speaking of his target. “I’ve been running over your plan to defeat Batman in my head, and I realized something,” Brion said, leaning over to look Jason in the eyes. “You said your plan involved the technology conference in Markovia next month, and that somehow Batman would attend without support from the rest of the Justice League, yes?”

“I’m no idiot, I know it would take time and resources to catch Batman off guard in Gotham, especially with all his...proteges patrolling his turf,” Jason said, returning Brion’s gaze without flinching. “But you made it clear that vigilantes and the members of the Justice League are black-listed from Markovia. It doesn't mean they won’t try, of course, but for the sake of appearances, they won’t land a jet by the palace gates. I’ll train the security forces to recognize them, but just trust me that Batman will be here.”

Brion arched a brow and said, “I reviewed the attendance list for the conference and this wouldn’t have anything to do with the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, who’s scheduled to give a speech at the opening ceremony, would it?”

“What do you mean?” Jason said with an expression of mild confusion that would’ve fooled anyone else if they didn’t know the truth.

“I know Bruce Wayne is Batman. You don’t need to keep his secrets.”

It was fascinating to watch Jason’s expression change from surprise to rage, then unreadable again. It happened so fast Brion wasn’t sure if he saw the teal green of his eyes flared up vibrantly for a second. “How?” Jason demanded as if he was mortally offended.

“He told us,” Brion answered. “Well, not really, but he showed up in plain clothes as Wayne at the Outsider headquarters. He was there with Tim, Barbara, the whole Batfa—” Brion swallowed his words as Jason grew pale. “Look, they were there because we thought Dick was dying, he had this uncontrollable fever after being trapped in Granny Goodness’ ghost dimension.”

Jason closed his eyes and let out a bitter chuckle, then he asked, “Grayson seemed fine in the broadcast the night you killed DeLamb. Do you know if he’s suffering from any side effects?”

“Concerned about him?”

Jason glared at him, his smile now completely gone. “What I’m concerned about whether there are lingering side effects that might impact his combat or reaction time. It’s strategic information I can exploit.”

“Not that I’m aware of. Nightwing seemed to have recovered fully.”

“Like I was saying,” Jason spoke through clenched teeth, turning back to the previous topic. “Batman will be attending the conference in Markovia as Bruce Wayne. He’ll be out of his comfort zone. Here, I can confront him without interference from his little sidekicks. You’re going to make sure the conference proceeds as scheduled and that I can set traps to ensure he can’t escape.”

“You’re blowing ducks,” Brion commented.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a local idiom. It means you’re lying.”

“Wow, I gotta remember that one,” Jason chuckled and took a sip of water.

“Don’t change the subject. I know you’re not going to kill Batman.”

“And you know this because you know me so well?” Jason mocked and pushed the now empty plate away.

“You were a Robin.”

“Yes,” Jason snorted, a lopsided smile appearing on his face. “And you were a prince and a member of the Outsiders.”

Brion found himself mirroring the other’s smile. Jason made his point. He didn’t need reminders of what he was now nor what he had done. It doesn’t matter who he was, he’s king of Markovia now, and the only way is forward. “Cheers then,” he toasted with a raised glass. “To our plans.”

---------------------------------

With his sleep deprivation catching up to him, Brion decided to turn in early after dinner. Jason donned his hood again and accompanied him back to the royal sleeping quarters. They were alone as they passed by an outdoor garden on the way to their destination, and that’s when Brion realized something was very, very wrong.

At first, he thought he jinxed himself and that his sudden shortness of breath was caused by food poisoning, after all...except he didn't feel pain, he felt an ache. His senses heightened and suddenly he was very aware of the man beside him, in sync with his brisk pace.

As a prince, Brion had a controlled and sheltered upbringing. Even when he left Markovia to study abroad, his title followed him like a glass dome, isolating him. He had plenty of acquaintances, even friends if you stretch the definition, but they’ve never forgotten his position. The months he spent with his hive and the Outsiders was the first time he was Brion first, and “prince” a distant second. With recent events, he had resigned to others never seeing beyond the crown.

Then Jason appeared.

Brion squeezed his eyes shut, but that action failed to dampen the intensity of his desire. His world was reduced to a singular thought: he wanted to kiss Jason.

It would have been alarming had he not already admitted to himself that he found Jason physically attractive. But more than that, his presence filled a void he had not been willing to admit. The urge to rip that silly dome off his head and press their lips together spread like wildfire, scorching everything in its path. This urge only grew the more he tried to suppress it. The last time Brion felt this drunk with impulse was the night he executed his uncle.

“I know you didn’t ask for my opinion,” Jason said, lost in his own thoughts and oblivious to Brion’s internal turmoil. “But Baron DeLamb deserved death for his crimes. It wasn’t Grayson’s or anyone else’s place to grant leniency to him and judge you for having the conviction to follow through. Your uncle won’t get another chance to hurt you, your siblings, or anyone else. You did the right thing. I would have done the same.”

Brion’s throat felt tight. He didn’t need anyone’s endorsement to confirm what he knows to be right, but still, Jason’s words dissolved the tension he carried on his shoulders. With it, his self-control burned to a crisp and without warning, Brion grabbed Jason’s shoulders and pinned him against a pillar.

Reacting on instinct, Jason’s hand darted to his firearm, but he caught himself before he could put a bullet between the eyes of his new partner. “What are you—“ he sputtered in surprise. He barely got the words out before Brion reached up to unclasp the headgear covering his identity. The face that was revealed blushed furiously from the compromised position, but as the hood fell to the ground with a low metallic crack, something came over Jason.

A silent song carried delicious promises that vibrated straight to his bloodstream and Jason choked back further protests. He shivered against Brion’s form and sucked in a shaky breath. At this distance, Brion could see his teal eyes gloss over with an unspoken need.

“This is a bad idea,” Jason panted in a daze.

“Yes, the worst,” he agreed and closed the distance between their lips.

The violent retaliation never came so Brion brushed strands of stray hair from Jason’s face as he deepened the kiss. That elicited a soft whine from Jason, who then parted his lips to let Brion slip in an eager tongue. Brion half-moaned and half-growled with appreciation. Heartbeat thundered in his ears and he held himself back from internally combusting on the spot to relieve the overwhelming sensation.

Crumble.

The sound of a dry leaf rustling in the garden beside them broke the spell. They both snapped in the direction of the noise and backed away from each other. “Fuck!” Jason unholstered his firearms and shoved Brion behind himself. “I think someone saw us.”

“I think it was a bird,” Brion mumbled in a husky voice. He shook his head and felt the daze triggered by the fervid desire recede immediately, leaving him weak and baffled. Mostly, he was feeling frustrated with the interruption, even if he wasn’t sure what inspired that spur of temporary insanity.

“I’m not sure. It felt like someone dosed me with a concentrated dose of Poison Ivy’s pheromone attack. If it’s anything like it, the effects are...potent...so don’t think too deeply about what you just did,” Jason said while scanning the shadows for movements. “Either way, I’ll search the parameter. Can you manage to get your royal ass back to your room or do I have to tuck you in bed?”

“I’ll manage,” Brion replied dryly, leaving Jason to his work. As he thought about those dark empty rooms, he paused mid-step and called out to Jason again. “It’s not exactly orthodox, but instead of staying in the guard quarters, sleep in my old bedroom! Faster reaction time if I need anything.”

For a moment, Brion thought Jason might refuse on principle--that the special treatment might make him skittish. Then Jason gave a noncommittal shrug and said, “Sure. No one likes to be alone in an empty mansion.”

“It’s a palace, actually,” Brion thought, but he did not correct him.

That night, Brion did not see the ghosts of his murdered parents or the man responsible for their deaths. Nor was he haunted by the paths not taken and the people that left him. That night, the King of Markovia slept like a rock.