They had been stalking each other for three weeks now. Batman knew every dark shadow in Gotham, but his prey (or maybe his hunter) knew every nook and cranny. They were both silent. Lurking and stalking. Watching each other. The only indication the other had been there would be the flap of a long trench coat or the scrap of a knife.
Batman found himself grinning. The Court of Owl’s pet proved more tenacious than the Court themselves. He had hung every one of the Talon’s masters for all the world to see in front of the Gotham Police Station. They were barely alive, but each one still drew breath, so Commissioner Gordon wouldn’t be overly upset with him. He had found their tombs and mazes and destroyed them, uncovered them. The Talon they had sent after him had fallen one by one. The power of their legend dwindled. Now they were rich psychopaths that tortured young children to become their murderers. They were flesh and bone and would be punished for their crimes.
Only this one remained. This one eluded. It made Batman’s stomach curl in anticipation. It wasn’t often he got to play with anyone that came close to matching him. Not since the death of his father.
Gotham was a maze filled with traps of Batman’s making. Only he could navigate the rooftops safely. Only he could swing from building to building knowing which supports would hold him. His hunter (his prey) had reaction and luck on his side. His timing was phenomenal. Batman watched as a gargoyle crumbled beneath the Talon’s weight. He didn’t flail, he let himself fall and used his inertia to grab a flagpole and twist and summersault to the next before jumping through a window to lose the Dark Knight’s gaze.
That one’s skill was amazing and the Court of Owls couldn’t take all the credit for it either. Batman had poured through his father’s archives until he found what he was looking for. The Night of Owls. They had risen then too. The last Batman wrote about his experiences and about the book found at Haly’s Circus containing the names of children claimed by the Court to be their Talons. The last name was of a boy, an acrobat. His parents had fallen and died and that very night he disappeared. The police blamed him for their deaths. Batman proved them wrong.
I saw the boy’s face, he wore a face of grief that I had seen before. The face I wore after my own parents died. That boy was not a murderer. It was a man named Tony Zucco. He had wanted extortion money and when Haly hadn’t paid he sabotaged the trapeze. I need to find this boy.
He never did. He couldn’t have known the Court had taken him when they saw their chance.
Movement—Damn! He threw off a pair of Bat-a-rangs. The Talon was coming at him midair. He tilted his head just so. The ‘rangs struck his mask ripping it off his face, but did no damage. Black hair and a pale face. The round yellow eyes of the mask stayed on. A pair of long legs landed on his shoulders. He grabbed them out of instinct. The Talon grabbed his neck. He had snuck up on him. Batman growled viciously at his own thoughtlessness. The assassin was about to jam his knife into his neck, but Batman took a firmer hold of his legs, spun and threw him off. The Talon flew and might have fallen off the building where they fought except his amazing reflexes saved him. He caught the edge and pulled himself up.
“Damian Wayne, the Court of Owls has sentenced you to die.” The Talon said ominously. Batman laughed darkly.
“Haven’t you heard? Your masters are no more. Their faces paint the morning news. They’re all going to rot.”
The Talon pushed forward. His came with precision. This time Batman wasn’t fast enough. He hissed pulling back.
“Damian Wayne, the Court of Owls has sentenced you to die,” His attacker repeated.
“And the Court of Owls will be sentenced for the rest of their natural lives.” Batman shot back. He leapt sending himself and the Talon tumbling off the edge.
He grunted in pain. Ribs were broken, but that didn’t matter. The Devil would pay his dues. He looked up. The Talon hadn’t been so lucky. Twisted, broken neck. He stood anyway and his bones popped back into place.
“Broken bones do nothing against the regeneration of my flesh.”
Damian felt his vision blur. He couldn’t have lost that much blood—the knife, it must have been laced with poison. He cursed as the Talon approached. He fell back down into the subways.
“Damian Wayne, the Court of Owls—”
“Can suck it,” Damian said in frustration.
“Gotham is a city of birds, a city of owls. That will never change. My masters have died and risen before. What you did was meaningless, what you do now is meaningless. This city doesn’t change.”
“You’re wrong. For example when Gotham modernized it had to find a way to cool the subway cables. I’ve noticed your kind don’t like the cold,” Damian said bluntly. He pulled the knife out of his shoulder and aimed it up at the subway cables. Liquid nitrogen spilled. He stuffed a rebreather in his mouth. His uniform would keep him safe for a short period of time. The Talon fell in surprise.
“Don’t worry little bird, there’s use for you yet.”
He brought him back home. Put him in cage. He pulled off the yellow goggles that remained and any weapons hidden on him. The talon was young. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-two when the Court decided to retire him. Damian was thirty. It was hard to imagine the young man being almost a contemporary of his father.
He stabbed him with a needle. The formula wouldn’t entirely counter the effects of the compound that saturated his blood, he would still regenerate, but he would also no longer be so near to the physiology of a corpse.
“Damian… Wayne…” He turned. His prisoner was awake. Blue eyes stared through the metal bars. His white flesh was slowly starting to become pink. The formula was working then.
“And who are you? One of the Court’s little owlets?” Damian sneered. The man stared at him blankly through his cage.
“Speak not a whispered word of them, or they’ll send The Talon for your head.”
Damian snorted, “I’ve dealt with aliens, magic, the devil and my goddamn father. A little bird like you doesn’t scare me, Owlet.”
“I’m not an Owl,” The man objected. “I am their tool.”
“Tool, yes, I’m seeing it, Owlet.”
“I’m not an Owl… but I used to be a Robin,” He said very quietly. It was just short of longing, the words carried meaning, but not his tone.
Damian liked that better. “Robin then,” He turned away from the Talon going back towards the computer. “I plan to keep you, Robin.”
“I belong to the Court of Owls.”
“You belong to me now.”
“This is their city.”
“No, this is my city,” Damian swung his chair around. “The devil made it so. The Devil your former masters worshiped. Do you know why I haven’t destroyed you yet?”
Robin shook his head.
“I need help,” Damian shrugged and leaned back in his chair. He studied the younger man. He was pretty in his own way. “You look as likely a candidate as any.”
Robin frowned, “I belong to the Court of Owls,” He repeated.
“You suffer from brainwashing, Stockholm syndrome, and probably a bit of madness,” Damian said breezily. “Also a regenerative chemical that preserves your body, your youth. It suspends you. I almost thought you were dead, but you’re not. They tortured you to make you what you are now. I’ll make you human again, Robin.”
“I’m not a human.”
“You were,” Damian pointed out, “And I’ll make you one again, then you’ll help me. My father was never one for partners. He was a dark angry man with only his mission to hold on to. When I found him my father was a husk of humanity. A shadow, a bogyman. Compared to him the Court of Owls are insects, ready prey for a bat. I had to rip this cowl off his cold dead face. He would never give it to me, he would never share his mission. I had to make my own mission. I’ve agreed with him to a certain extent about partners. Partners get in the way, you’re an exception though, I can already tell.”
Robin stared at him. His stance was aloof and yet Damian could smell his curiosity. Damian stood and slowly stalked towards his caged bird, “I wonder. I think despite everything you’re rather eager for a change in vocations.”
“A regenerator and as far as I can tell the greatest acrobat the world has to offer? You’ll be able to survive Gotham City even when it tears you apart. Besides, my father told me about you specifically.”
“I never met the last Batman. I was put to rest before that summon… I was not awakened.”
“The story of you had me looking through his files again. He told me about this little acrobat. Batman failed to save his parents and then he apparently failed to save him, Haly’s Circus’ last sacrifice,” Damian studied him with a critical eye. “It was too bad, he apparently liked you. He found your name on their list. He tried to find you, but there were too many of your ilk to stop. Consider this me being better than my father again.”
“…You know my name?”
“Your name is Robin now.”
The Talon didn’t look angry, he still lacked any emotion.
“I won’t lie to you little bird, I’m going to have to mold you into something else so you can serve me faithfully.”
“You’ll mold me like the Court?”
“Yes. You belong to Bats now, not Owls.”
The way to brainwash Robin was to introduce him back to human feelings. It wasn’t Damian’s strong suit. Batman was a hair away from psychopath himself. His empathy for people had dampened over time until it ebbed to almost nothing, but he had always liked animals. His Robin was an animal, a poor injured bird in a cage. Damian clipped his wings, trained him to his liking. Fed him, played with him and clothed him. He made him wear bright colours. The little bird was broken. He had to glue him back together piece by piece. Robin started trusting him. Started seeing him as a better master. The young man was clever and quick. He didn’t smile still, which irked the Batman slightly. He liked his pets happy.
He clicked his fingers and in an instant his bird gracefully dropped beside him. He crouched on all fours looking up. Damian kept him like an animal—better treatment than the former Talon had in decades—Robin knew to stay low, to be submissive. He was clad in a gray hooded cape and a tight black uniform. The only colour to it was a chevron of red at his chest that ran up his arms and down to the points of his fingers. Small lines of red also accented his hips. He studied him and slowly smirked.
“I like the uniform,” He leaned down and took his pet by the chin. Robin looked up. His eyes were less dead now. Black had faded into a lighter blue. They must have been friendly eyes. He pulled out a domino mask and pressed it to his bird’s face. Robin frowned.
“You are mine and I intend to bring you out into the light eventually… when you’re ready for it,” Damian said reading his mind. He liked to explain things to his bird. It was meant to strengthen Robin’s sense of his own humanity. “If you run around with a bare face my enemies will learn my face.”
Robin nodded in acceptance, “I was only wondering why not a long mask like my old one?” He spoke softly, his eyes blank and white from the mask’s eyelets.
He chuckled and pulled Robin up, “Hiding your pretty face is a sin, Robin.” He kissed his servant gently. Robin leaned in, almost animated. Damian pushed Robin’s hood down so he could run his fingers through inky black hair. Robin wrapped an arm around Damian’s neck like he was expected to. He pressed himself against Damian’s chest. Damian reached down and took his slender wrist.
“Your pulse has quickened. That’s good.”
“You’ll need a name,” Damian mused, “For going out there.”
“You name me, Damian,” Robin nuzzled against him. It was trained behaviour, but it was almost sweet.
He pressed a kiss to Robin’s forehead before pulling back completely.
“No,” He said. “You name yourself. I’ve better things to do.”
Robin frowned, Damian ignored him and went to his computer banks. “And don’t you dare choose Batlad, you’re a twenty-two year old man, not a little boy.”
Alfred yowled in sound agreement.
“Hello, Alfred,” Damian heard his servant quietly whisper. The cat purred. From a reflection on one of the blank computer screens he saw Alfred in Robin’s arms being petted. Damian smiled very slightly. The cat hair would be annoying to brush off the new uniform, but he was pleased Robin was bonding with the animal. Children could learn empathy from keeping pets, perhaps the former Talon could as well.
It was amusing and sad how innocent the twenty-two-year-old was. A killer and tool for so long he could only face emotions and feelings with his heart on his sleeve. It made him strangely charming. Despite being a fully grown adult, Robin was Damian’s ward. Damian was owner and father. He had to guide his servant carefully. A pet, a child, a partner, a killer. As tempted as he was he didn’t take the younger man to bed. It would be wrong. His pet had no way to give true consent.
Robin hadn’t come up with a name by the time Batman wanted them out on their first patrol.
“I don’t know what would be appropriate,” Robin almost pouted. Damian rolled his eyes.
“Keep thinking about it, let’s go.”
Robin jumped in the Batmobile.
“You need to be your own entity,” Batman explained as they flew through the darkened skies of Gotham. “I refuse to be your master forever. Soon you’ll have to fly on your own. You’re useless to me if you can’t be independent. You want to be useful to me, don’t you?”
“When I wear the cowl you call me Batman, at all times.”
“Sorry, Batman… Batman, I worked on my own as a Talon for the Court of Owls… I can do things on my own.”
Batman snickered, “And yet you can’t find a flashy name to go by little bird?” He liked it when Robin argued.
“Being ‘flashy’s’ not my strong suit anymore,” The Robin confessed. Damian paused.
…not my strong suit anymore. Could it be Robin was finally starting to acknowledge his memories? His time before the Court of Owls ripped him from his happy life? Batman was going to press, but Gotham city, like the bitch she was, interrupted. An explosion set off a shockwave. Batman expertly guided the ship through it. That was one of his.
“You are not to kill. Incapacitate, but don’t mutilate unless there’s no other choice. You’re good enough to do that, aren’t you?”
They sprang out of the ship together. Robin moved beside him with ease. Despite both of them being solitary creatures having Robin felt… right. He became an extension of Batman’s self. They stood on the rooftop, the gargoyle slowly crumbled and started to fall to the streets below. Someone had triggered it.
“Go,” Batman commanded.
His bird summersaulted off the building and at the last minute hooked a line. As he fell he shot an adhesive getting most of the bigger rocks and gluing them to the side of the building. They would have to deal with that later, but it would hold for now.
“Good,” He complemented. “Now get back up here—”
There was a blur of black. In a second his Robin was gone. The line hung empty.
First fear, then rage. He turned. Superman stood holding the struggling bird in his arms. Robin had pulled a knife and attempted to stab the Man of Steel’s shoulder. The blade broke. Robin seemed to realize who it was he was dealing with and went limp like a submissive kitten caught by the neck.
“Let me go,” he requested.
Superman did just that.
Robin flipped back and stood with Batman.
Clark Kent had barley aged since the days of Damian’s father. The only indication of the passage of time was gray temples and a new black and white uniform.
“Get out of my city,” Batman said dangerously. “The League isn’t welcome here, not anymore.”
“The League was never welcome here,” Superman corrected. “Your father made that very clear, Damian.”
Damian scowled. He hated the League and Superman and how they refused to use his name.
“Who’s your sidekick?”
“My partner is none of your business Kent.” Damian stepped in front of the smaller man. He put a hand on his belt, “You know I’m prepared for your eventuality.”
Superman sighed, “I’m not your enemy, Damian.”
“I’m Batman.” Batman corrected sharply, “And you are not welcome here.”
Superman wasn’t moving. Batman was about to bring out his Green Kryptonite when he felt a soft hesitant touch on his shoulder. Robin.
“That’s… Superman, isn’t it?” Robin whispered. Damian turned. Robin looked like he usually did, neutral and bland, but Damian had shaped him and cared for him and so he didn’t miss the small upturn of Robin’s lips.
He was smiling?.
He looked back at Kent and then once again to Robin.
“Really?” He let his surprise show. What might have been a smile disappeared. “No, no, it’s alright, Robin.”
He looked back at Superman who could hear everything they were saying. He took his servant by the wrist and took his pulse. Superman didn’t move, didn’t interrupt. The Man of Tomorrow was curious.
Robin was excited.
Damian let go of his wrist. “Do you like Superman, pet?”
Robin processed the question, he seemed confused, but then nodded.
“I… think so.”
“Say hello then,” Damian ordered. Of all the heroes it could have been it had to be Superman. It made sense. Superman would have appeared around the same time his Robin was a little boy. Damian resented Superman, but this was important.
Robin moved carefully, bent and ready to spring back if Kent so much as twitched funny. Superman stayed perfectly still. He watched curiously as the yet to be named crime-fighter moved toward him. Every so often Robin would glance back. Damian would wave his hand in irritated encouragement. Robin stood a step away from Superman, looked anywhere but at the hero’s face then said: “Hello.”
“Hello,” Kent gave him a kind grin in return. He seemed to realize something delicate was happening and any reason for Damian not to pull out the green Kryptonite was a good reason to play along.
Robin didn’t seem to know what to do. “…I… admire how you can fly,” he admitted.
Damian crossed his arms. He tried very hard not to be jealous. Kent seemed moved by such innocent words.
“Do you want to try?” Superman asked.
Robin quickly turned toward Damian. He had that almost-smile again. Eager, definitely eager.
As much as he hated Superman…
He nodded once.
“Talk about yourself,” Damian ordered, “Not me. If you let him kidnap you, you’re fired.”
Robin nodded three times. Damian was having trouble not pulling him back, changing his mind. He turned so he wouldn’t have to see them.
“One hour, Kent. Then you and I will talk.”
He turned back in surprise, but they were gone.
“So what did you talk about?” It was dawn and they were safely back in their cave. He had denied Kent’s offer to join the League, but agreed to take an emergency communicator. He already regretted it. Damian sat watching as Robin stripped off his uniform. Faint scars crisscrossed everywhere. One day Damian would have to count them all.
“He asked me about myself,” Robin said slowly. When he was naked he sat down beside Damian and put his head on the larger man’s shoulder.
He felt a brief desire bloom. No. He wrapped his discarded cape around the younger man’s body.
“I told him who I was.”
“And who are you?” Damian asked. He leaned his head against Robin’s and held his hand.
“I’m Robin, I’m yours,” Robin answered easily. “I’m becoming something else again. I was a child, an acrobat and I flew on a trapeze. My name was Richard Grayson, but my mother called me Robin.”
Damian’s heart clenched. He gripped Robin’s hand. So he did remember.
“And then they fell,” Robin continued dispassionately. “And I was given to the trainers. I was presented to the Court of Owls. They thought I was a masterpiece, they knew I had been bred for their delights. I moved for them and killed for them. I was a shadow in Gotham, I moved at their pleasure. I was their Talon. Superman apologised to me then. I asked him why. He told me someone should have saved me. I told him someone did.” Robin pressed a very light kiss against Damian’s cheek. “Batman rung each neck of the Court of Owls and claimed me. He didn’t hurt me like they did. He was soft and gentle. I’m an animal, but he’s teaching me to be human. He’s beautiful and he makes me very happy.”
Damian shuddered. He felt a tear slowly slide down his face.
“Are you happy, Robin?”
“Yes, Damian. I love you.”
Damian turned and kissed Robin firmly on the top of the head. Love, he hadn’t taught Robin about love.
“Then what happened?” Damian asked.
“He told me a story.”
“You’re such a child,” Damian said fondly. “What was it about?”
“About me…” Robin said slowly. “Or… no… it was… Kal-El told me that long before he was born there was a man who was cast out from his family. He decided to fight crime as the vigilante Nightwing. He became a hero to the people of his world.”
“Yes. A man wrapped in shadow…He reminds me of you. From what… I’ve seen.”
Damian never spoke to Robin about his past, about who he was, but Robin was perceptive.
“Batman’s not a hero.”
“Are you contradicting me?”
Robin seemed a bit confused, “You like it when I contradict you… if my reasoning is sound.”
“What’s your reasoning?”
“From what I’ve observed in Gotham city, a city of decay and devil worship. Of freaks and fear and hate you’re the only hope. People look to you to save them and you do it because you…care.”
“I don’t care about them.”
“Then why don’t you let it burn?”
“It’s already burning, pet.”
Robin nestled against him, but didn’t argue. It wasn’t that Damian had defeated his argument. Damian was aware how thin his walls were with his servant. It was simply that Robin didn’t know how to argue his point with words. He saw no need for Damian to admit he was wrong when it was so obvious.
“Nightwing had a partner.”
“Flamebird. Flamebird rose from the ashes of her ruined life and was recreated.”
“No, by herself.”
Damian took Robin’s hand and kissed it, “She sounds like a good role model.” He said approvingly.
“Very long ago I accepted that I won’t ever be Dick Grayson again.”
“No, you won’t. The Court of Owls murdered that child.”
“But, I think I can be Robin. I think I can be Flamebird.”
“Batman and Flamebird. It’s certainly flashy.”
“Maybe I can still be a little flashy.”
“Damian, I love you.”
“I made you love me.”
“No,” Robin shook his head, but once again didn’t know how to argue his point so he said it again, “I love you.”
“I’m not going to make love to an animal,” He stood abruptly. Robin looked up at him with nothing but his cape for cover. The tiniest of disappointed frowns. The smallest hints that spoke such volumes to Damian now. The rejection broke his little bird’s heart. Damian turned and started walking back toward the main house. Robin sat silently. He didn’t protest, argue, or beg.
He looked back. “When you’re human,” Damian promised.
Robin’s smile was beautiful.