“Well, look at it this way,” Redbird says to himself, grimacing as his knee squishes into something…squishy, which is as descriptive as he wants to get down here. “This is not the worst thing to ever happen to me.”
As a motivational speech, it leaves a lot to be desired, and he tries again to buoy his spirits – never mind that of all the things floating by down here, his spirits are the least objectionable. “Surely almost suffocating in that tar pit in the desert was worse than crawling through some dismal sewers that are probably going to kill me if the executioner doesn’t get his hands on me first on my way out of a condemned cell in the most heavily fortified prison in the land. The key words being, on the way out. It’s a good start. It’s a start, which is nice; better than the end. Better than some of the others – oh God what is that?”
Flinging himself into an alcove in the wall to avoid whatever is lazily bobbing down the sewer canal towards him, he curls up tight and tries not to lose the pitiful condemned man’s breakfast he was given earlier. “Holy mother that is revolting, that surely cannot have been part of a human once – oh look, it’s a cow’s head. Well, that clears that up. Still not the worst. Beaten with an iron rod and being tossed into a scorpion pit is pretty hard to beat.” He lets go of the ledge and continues forward, trying not to focus on what he’s crawling through.
“Besides, this time wasn’t even really my fault! The guard who caught me crawling out of the window only came out to take a piss. I suppose they got tired of the Redbird’s string of success, because I really don’t see how stealing a diamond necklace is enough to get me the death penalty. Well, there was that sapphire brooch too, but that’s beside the point. And the emerald. And the diamond earrings. And the gold. There was a lot of gold – you know, I’m just going to focus on the positive, which is I’m still alive, despite all evidence to the contrary, and I would very much like to stay that way. I just need to get out, and I won’t even steal again, and then the worst thing that will happen is not having enough sauce for the bread –”
A shriek finishes his sentence as a rusted grate gives way beneath Redbird’s knees and sends him plunging down an old causeway, accompanied by what feels like half the river. He barely snatches enough air to breathe, let alone scream, as the twists and turns take him further down into the foundations of the Keep. The darkness is absolute, until the waterway drops him with an unceremonious splash into the moat. Redbird floats upside down for a moment, struggling to orient himself, and then with a few flailing strokes hauls his way to the surface.
The air, thick with the scent of mud and cattle dung and old food and God knows what else, is beautiful, and Redbird gulps it down eagerly as he paddles his way toward the wall.
“Success! Redbird’s luck holds once more. I just need to get out, stop stealing, and live happily ever after. It’ll be fine.” His whispered soliloquy get him to the wall, where he hides in the shadows of the masonry and takes stock. All arms and legs accounted for, all toes and fingers, nose, eyes, ears, still with a full head of hair including the stupid tuft of white, and the prison’s bleak, coarse brown robes the condemned have to wear are serviceable, if damp and extremely uncomfortable.
All in all, a success. He’s alive, he’s near the ladder that leads up to the road, and he is content.
Swimming away from the wall and tucking the bulging money purse he’d just lifted oh so very delicately from the belt of a guard sitting on the wall into his robes, Redbird shrugs. He can acknowledge his own flaws.
The bells of the prison begin to ring as he’s negotiating his way through the marketplace; let them! He’s the first person to successfully escape the Keep in a hundred years. Several pieces of silver later, he has some new clothes (none of them paid for, except for the shirt; he knows that family is worse off than he is), a hunk of bread (at the discounted price of one copper piece) and a bony old nag (the bastard wouldn’t take less than fifteen silvers even with Redbird’s trademark threatening charm), and is on the road out of Aquila. The wind is fresh in his face, the sun is warm on his skin, and a hawk shrieks overhead, the sound full of freedom that resonates within him.
Though it is a sad trial, Redbird manfully ignores the scent of roasting meat wafting out from each inn he passes on his way to the mountains, avoiding the main roads and bigger towns as he goes: they’re still too close to the city and to His Grace the Raptor of the Skies, Bishop of Aquila, for comfort. When the sun has taken on the mellow, honeyed glow of mid-afternoon he finally stops the uncomfortable bag of bones passing for a horse by a pleasant-looking inn with the mouth-watering scent of food drifting on the breeze. Tossing the reins over a log outside, he swaggers in, ignoring the hooded man in a long black cloak who’s writing at the table in the corner.
The large, hairy innkeeper appears from the back and grunts at him. Too pleased with life in general, Redbird doesn’t take umbrage and instead tells the man bring him a tankard of mead and the best the kitchen has to offer, holding up the clinking purse as incentive.
The man grunts again and waves him out towards the tables in the back garden. Redbird lounges over to the nearest one and sprawls there, surveying the world with a benevolent eye. The trellis supporting the criss-cross of grape-bearing vines above casts dappled shade over the yard, and he knows enough to keep to one of the darker patches no matter how generally contented he is. When the innkeeper brings out food and drink, Redbird inhales both so quickly the second miracle of the day must be that he manages not to choke.
When he’s finished Redbird gestures imperiously for another drink, and then says as loudly and importantly as he can, “And a drink for all my friends here, if you please, to celebrate life and the freedom every man is entitled to, and the one man, namely myself, who overcame the odds. After all,” and the warm satisfaction in his belly overrides his considerable instinct of self-preservation, “I am the only man who has ever seen the lowest circle of Aquila’s dungeons and lived to tell the tale.”
He bows left and right, and then clinks the purse appealingly. The farmers and labourers around him just grunt in acknowledgement. What is it with this place?
“That’s very generous, good sir,” a rasping voice says from his left. Redbird turns to see a group of men also wearing heavy cloaks, with hoods up over their faces. Do all small hamlets have such mysterious clientele?
“I simply felt struck with the desire to see all the Lord’s creatures as happy as me,” he responds grandly.
“Celebrating life, is that it? Overcoming odds?” The man gets up and crosses to his table, propping a hip against the wood.
“Indeed. Life is such a precious thing, so easily taken for granted –” Redbird finishes with a squeak as the man suddenly seizes his wrist so tightly it hurts. The other hand sweeps back its owner’s hood and Redbird looks up at Talon, Captain of His Grace’s Guards, with his heart in his throat like it wants to jump ship while there’s still breath in his body.
“It’s a shame, little bird, that you won’t live to celebrate. No one escapes the Keep on my watch.”
The guards nearby snigger, standing and readying their weapons. Redbird doesn’t wait for them to be ready.
With a twist that almost dislocates his shoulder he pushes away from the table and ducks behind Talon so the man will have to let him go or risk injury to his own arm, and then kicks the captain behind the knees. With a shout the whole tavern erupts into a brawl.
Swords are swung, axes are thrown, knives are wielded, and Redbird barely makes it up onto the trellises without losing a leg. The guards yell angrily as he dodges out of the way of their thrusts, and he manages to wobble from one end to the other before everyone's attention is caught by the sight of a massive black horse leaping over the wall of the tavern garden and into the fray. The bright silver buckles of its tack gleam in the sunlight, dazzling the eye, and its sheer size makes everyone around it retreat instinctively. Redbird whoops as its cloaked rider swings down from the saddle and disarms three startled guards without pausing for breath.
In his excitement, however, Redbird forgets to watch his precarious perch, and Talon succeeds in grabbing him by the ankle and hauling him back to earth. He lands with a cry of pain but the instinct of a lifetime on the streets is louder, and he rolls out of the way as a sword whistles down and gouges the soil where he’d just been. He rolls again, breath catching in his throat: he’s good with knives and brawling and throwing punches but an actual longsword is way out of his range. Redbird is just considering consigning what’s left of his soul to a God he’s never believed in when the ringing sound of two pieces of metal clashing together interrupts his prayer. Talon’s sword, on its downward sweep to part his head from his shoulders, has been arrested by the Black Rider’s. Redbird squawks like his namesake and gapes up at the combatants, who suddenly look like they’ve forgotten he’s there.
“I thought I must be mad, seeing such familiar swordwork after all this time…but you are the mad one here, Captain Wayne, if you thought to come anywhere near Aquila!”
The Black Rider’s cowl has slipped back in the fray, revealing a man with a stern face currently made even more fearsome by the glare he’s directing at Talon. His voice is as deep as his opponent’s and as full of cold condescension as Talon’s was with hot anger.
“You are the fool, Talon, if you thought you could best me. I have no fear of anyone along these roads.”
Talon bears his teeth and his shoulders start to shake under the strain of locking swords with this mysterious man.
“You, out,” Wayne says to him, and Redbird, suddenly remembering that those swords are hovering dangerously close to him, scrambles out of the way. As soon as he’s clear the fight begins once more, Talon engaging Wayne in a vicious duel that takes both of their concentration. Redbird has had quite enough of near-death experiences for one day, and darts off towards where his horse is waiting by the fence.
It is extremely unimpressed by current events and thanks him for freeing its reins by promptly bolting down the street. “Long-eared, yellow-toothed strumpet!” Redbird bellows after it.
Well, in that case…he approaches the massive black charger with great care, decides when a stray knife whizzes past his nose that if the horse can stand the chaos of battle his scrawny self won’t be able to frighten it, and hurries over. “Come on now, girl, let’s you and me be friends and you can take me far away from this ridiculous place where everyone grunts and wears cloaks and tries to kill me…”
Redbird scrambles into the saddle and digs his heels into the horse’s sides.
She declines to move.
“Oh, pox on your mother!” He jabs at her again, and when that does nothing but make her ears twitch warningly abandons the whole worthless enterprise, swings himself off, and starts running towards the forest at the edge of town. The fight sounds like it’s winding down, and when Redbird risks a look over his shoulder he yelps and increases his speed: it seems Wayne has won, and he’s back on his horse and galloping after Redbird.
“Oh no, no no no no, bugger off,” he hollers, hearing the thunder of hooves right behind him.
A hand seizes his collar and a second later Redbird is hoisted like a sack of potatoes into the air and deposited on his front across the withers of the horse. He tries to curse the air blue but the sudden impact of the pommel into his stomach robs him of his breath and he’s left draped over the horse like supplies from market.
“Hold still,” the deep voice commands, and the horse is reined into a walk as they enter the forest.
“The hell I will,” he snaps breathlessly, squirming and twisting, determined to get free. “Are you kidnapping me?”
Wayne just forces his wrists together at the small of his back and lashes them with several loops of rope.
“Bastard,” Redbird hisses. The horse is tall enough that if he tries to roll off he’ll probably crack his head open. “What do you want, old man? Is it because I tried to steal your horse? I don’t even think she likes me, and I don’t know the men back there, or why they attacked me –”
“Hold still and be silent,” Wayne amends his instructions and continues guiding the horse through the tangle of trees.
Better to conserve his energy than struggle futilely, though in the supremely uncomfortable half-hour which passes before the horse is finally reined in, Redbird dreams up several inventive and imaginative ways to make the man regret abducting him.
When the horse does slow, it’s in response to a hawk’s call; the Black Kidnapper keeps one hand on Redbird’s bound wrists as he whistles back and Redbird manages to land an awkward backwards kick on the man’s thigh in spite. Was that the signal of accomplices waiting in the woods?
Instead of the team of mounted men Redbird was expecting, an actual hawk swoops through the gloom of the forest towards them and alights on the black leather gauntlet held out for it. Wayne urges the horse into motion again, perfectly able to keep Redbird still even with one hand supporting the bird.
“We’re nearly there,” he says a moment later, and though Redbird can’t keep track of much, draped over the saddle as he is, he thinks about five minutes pass before they arrive at a tumbledown wooden barn nestled in between three enormous trees. The rope around his wrist is cut, a hand once more grabs his collar, and Redbird is dragged backwards and unceremoniously dropped off the side of the horse.
“Hey!” he yelps, tumbling to the ground, and receives a harsh “Shh!” for his efforts. “Well, excuse me. Where am I?”
The man, unsurprisingly, doesn’t answer, just dismounts with the hawk still on his wrist. Redbird is beginning to think his given name might just be Taciturn when Wayne unbuckles the mighty longsword from the horse’s saddle. It’s half as long again as the sword strapped to Wayne’s waist and Redbird scrambles back, hands up.
“Go to hell with a pox on your cock! I did not become the first person to escape from the dungeons of Aquila just to be killed by a mysterious stranger in the middle of a gloomy wood with no one but a horse and a bird for witnesses!”
The man gives him an odd look from under the cowl of his cloak and merely stalks inside the shack. A moment later he returns with neither the sword nor the hawk, and begins unbuckling the rest of his gear from the horse.
“Oh…” Redbird sighs in relief. “That’s alright then. For a moment I was worried you were going to kill me.”
“I don’t kill,” is the terse response.
“Good, me neither. A good thief steals treasure, not lives, and I, you know, am a very good thief.”
“So good you were in the dungeons of Aquila,” the man says dryly, and Redbird turns his nose up at him.
“That was due to circumstances beyond my control. Besides, did you miss the part where I am now the only person to successfully escape the dungeons of Aquila?” The man doesn’t pause to acknowledge his genius, and Redbird scowls. “What are you doing?”
He barely gets a hand up in time to stop the brush from colliding with his face. “What’s this?”
“I got that, oh mighty sir. What do I do with it?”
“Brush the horse.”
“But she hates me!”
“He,” and the emphasis is pronounced, “won’t mind after you apologise.”
Redbird darts a quick look under the horse’s belly. Then the rest of what Wayne has just said catches up with him. “Wait, you want me to brush down your horse?”
The man just looks at him, and Redbird crosses his arms. “Why should I? I was kidnapped against my will, so I don’t see why I should have to do the menial tasks around here. In fact, I should be on my way out of here!”
The man advances on him like a thundercloud, black cloak billowing. The way the cowl shades his face leaves only his hard mouth visible, and Redbird grits his teeth as he takes up a fighting stance with his back against a tree. “Would you rather I left you for Talon and his men? So you will brush Tim down and then you will lock yourself into the barn for the night, and you will be thankful that you’re still alive to ask questions.”
Redbird huffs. “I would have escaped. I always do. And Tim is a stupid name for a horse.”
Tim snorts, offended.
“Just do it,” snaps Wayne, and turns on his heel to lead Tim into the barn. Redbird pulls a face at his back but concedes that a) he is alive to do so, thanks to the man’s intervention and b) he can’t do much else this close to nightfall. There’s always tomorrow. He follows, brush in hand.
“Who are you, anyway?” Redbird begins brushing the black stallion down, one eye on his mysterious saviour.
“Bruce Wayne,” is the answer.
“Thanks, very informative,” Redbird grumbles, watching the man sit down on a hay bale and hold out a wrist for the hawk. It’s the most well-trained hunting bird Redbird has ever seen: it hops on with a soft chirp, not even needing jesses, and clicks its beak companionably, reshuffling its beautiful golden feathers. Bruce strokes its back gently where the colour deepens to russet and black as a huff of something approaching mirth is exhaled under the cowl.
“My family is one of the oldest in Aquila, and the most powerful until I had…a falling-out with the Bishop two years ago. Since then I’ve been travelling around the country searching for a way to regain what is mine.”
“Uh huh. See, that wasn’t too hard. A hunter, with a horse and a hawk. It’s got a nice ring to it. Why did you help me?”
“I could hardly have let you die.”
Redbird scratches his nose. “Actually, you could have. Plenty of people would. Plus, Talon knew you. Said you were mad to come back.”
The silence that follows is broken only by the brush through Tim’s coat. Redbird doesn’t break it. Finally the hawk chirps again from his lap and Bruce sighs, staring at the drowsy bird and resuming the light, careful caresses down its back. “Perhaps I was, but after two years my patience was running thin. When I did return I heard the sound I had been waiting for.”
“What was that?”
This guy is really good at cryptic answers, and Redbird pulls a face from behind the cover of Tim’s flank. “The ones they ring to alert the Keep about breaches in security? What does that have to do with it?”
“You really don’t like wasting words. So you were waiting for the bells. What did they mean?”
Bruce leans back against the wall, and Redbird doesn’t need to see under his cowl to know the man’s eyes are fixed on him. “That someone had escaped. That the Keep has weaknesses. That the Raptor,” and he spits one of the Bishop’s titles like it’s poison in his mouth, “was getting lax. I heard you boasting about it in the inn.”
“Uh huh,” Redbird says, drawing the syllables out sceptically. “Look, that’s ridiculous. You can’t know all that from a few bells.”
Bruce shoots him a mildly pitying look. “I know more about Aquila and its Keep than most; believe me when I say I can know that from a few bells.”
“But why me?” he demands, close to throwing the brush at the man in frustration.
“You’re the only person to have escaped. Because out of all the inns you could have stopped at, you chose the one with not only Talon nearby but myself as well. Because you’re going to tell me everything you know. Because you’re part of this, Redbird.”
“Part of what?”
Bruce gently sets the hawk down on a nearby rail and stands, clearly finished with Redbird’s questions. “Lock the door and stay inside. Do not go out – there are wolves in the forest. Go to sleep, and pray everything you hear is a dream. I’ll be back in the morning.”
“Wait, what? You just said there are wolves out there!” Redbird drops the brush and stares incredulously at Bruce as he removes and folds his long cloak.
“Stay here. Lock the door. Go to sleep.” Bruce shoots him a smile he can only call wolfish. “Pray that you see the morning.”
“Very reassuring,” he mutters, watching the man stride out of the door and into the gloomy pre-twilight darkness of the forest. Weighing his options as Wayne disappears into the dark, Redbird sulkily admits making a run for it now would shorten, rather than prolong, his life expectancy, and retreats into the barn as the last of the sun disappears. He shuts and bolts the door, gives Tim an extremely sceptical look, and snatches one of the horse’s blankets. Retreating to the corner, Redbird puts the horse and a row of hay bales in between him and the door, curls up in the soft wool, and tries to ignore the straw poking at him, Bruce’s cryptic words, and the apparently likely possibility of death.
“On a scale of bad to worse, this sits at ‘could be better’,” he mutters. “Brush the horse, stay here, be quiet, and don’t ask questions…who does he think he is? Frankly, I was better off in the dungeons of Aquila. My cellmate was insane and a murderer to boot, but he respected my abilities. Wayne wants something from me, that’s clear enough, and thinks that the bells or some such nonsense means that fate brought us together. I call bullshit. In the morning it’s goodbye, captain and hello, freedom. I wonder if I can actually steal Tim this time.”
With a decided nod, Redbird turns over and falls asleep.
He jerks groggily awake an indeterminate amount of time later, but judging by the shadows it hasn’t been very long. Disgruntled, Redbird is about to turn over and try to fall back asleep when he realises a voice is what woke him. Raising his head cautiously to peek over the hay bale, his mouth drops when he sees someone swathed in Bruce’s cloak standing at Tim’s head and crooning softly to him.
“Hello, boy. I hope you didn’t have a very rough day today, I know he drives you too hard sometimes. Have you had enough to eat? To drink?”
The pale smudge in the darkness Redbird soon identifies as a hand, stroking the horse’s nose and neck, and he gapes. The soft tone lends ambiguity in the darkness, and Bruce’s cloak would dwarf anyone who put it on, but Redbird tentatively decides on male. What on earth – how did he – who –
Maybe he should just go back to sleep.
Mind made up, Redbird is about to give that a try when the ghostly man gives Tim a last pat and moves towards the door. Scrambling up, he lurches forward and promptly falls over Tim’s saddle. “Wait!”
The figure spins around, an ornate dagger clutched in one hand. “Who are you?”
“Redbird, but don’t go out there! There are wolves!”
On cue, an unearthly howl lilts up through the night. He tries to rise but the stirrups are somehow wrapped around his ankles, and though Redbird can’t see a damn thing he can glimpse enough of a mouth to see that the figure is smiling. The fighting posture under the cloak relaxes, and the man turns back to the door.
“I know. Don’t worry about me, Redbird. Go back to sleep. This is all a dream.”
Still on the floor with Tim’s judgemental equine eyes upon him, Redbird groans. He thinks the ghostly man is right. This must all be a dream. Finally free, he shakes his head in bewilderment and scurries over to the small window set high in the barn wall, just in case. The man strides confidently into the woods and just before he is lost to view, another shadow appears. This time Redbird can’t stifle the squeak. It’s a wolf, a huge black one, and if it were him he’d be high-tailing it back to the barn, screaming.
The figure crouches down to greet it. The wolf sniffs at an outstretched hand, allows a brief caress of his ruff, and darts away into the night with the cloaked figure close behind.
Redbird has to check he’s standing on the floor because it seems the world has been turned upside down in the eerie way of dreams, and then slaps his cheeks once or twice with both hands. “I have not seen what I’ve just seen. There’s no magic going on here. In fact, I’ve been dreaming, and that’s all. Even if there was something going on, I’m not going to be a part of it. No. Absolutely not.” He retreats to his blanket, determined not to move even if Tim starts talking to him next.
* * *
The high-pitched call of birds wakes him the next morning, and Redbird spends a blissful few seconds oblivious to the strangeness of the night before sitting upright with a loud curse, startling Tim. Bruce looks over from where he’s sitting on a hay bale sharpening and polishing his sword. The hawk is nowhere to be seen.
“You’re alive! I’m alive! Tim’s alive – although I certainly wouldn’t mourn if anything happened to him. That was a weird night. Very. Where were you?”
“Out,” is all Bruce says in a voice that seems huskier than it was yesterday and returns to polishing the sword. “Pack up, we must move further away from Aquila.”
Incensed that Bruce doesn’t even deem it necessary to ask about his strange night, let alone tell Redbird where on earth he went wandering in the middle of the night with the wood full of wolves, Redbird stalks over to Tim’s tack. He’s saddled a few horses before, most of which he was stealing at the time, but this is some good quality equipment with far too many buckles than seem practical. He spends a few minutes packing blankets and the few supplies Bruce laid out – if the man will leave his bread and cheese unattended, Redbird will eat them, it’s the law of the world – before circling Tim with an assessing look.
The horse stares back.
Redbird spends five unproductive minutes trying to heft the heavy black saddle onto the damn beast’s back and failing: Tim keeps moving, prancing away whenever Redbird gets close and standing still in innocent denial when Redbird swears at him. Eventually, Bruce gets bored of the show and takes over. Tim, the little suck-up, stands perfectly, obediently still and allows Bruce to saddle him with barely any effort. Soon everything is packed and Bruce is turning the hay over to hide any signs of the barn’s brief occupation.
“Where are you going now?” Redbird asks from where he’s leaning on the wall, eating an apple.
“We are going north,” Bruce says, leading Tim from the barn.
“Oh no we’re not,” Redbird retorts, hearing the emphasis. “I’m going nowhere with you, a hunter with a horse and a hawk, a longsword he obviously knows how to use and a history with Aquila’s guards.”
“Do you have any idea where you are right now?” Bruce asks calmly, and Redbird glares at him.
“In the middle of a forest, thanks to you!”
“Exactly. By now, Talon has run back to Raptor with his tail between his legs and told him everything; there will be twice as many patrols out as usual looking for us. Even if you don’t want to travel with me, you have no choice but to stick close for at least the next two days until we clear the forest. There’s a town near its edge. Or would you rather a night alone with the wolves?”
“You planned this,” Redbird hisses at him. Bruce shrugs.
The first few foggy hours are spent, most unfairly in Redbird’s opinion, with Bruce on horseback and Redbird jogging alongside him, stewing. The hawk had reappeared few hours after they set off, somehow unerringly finding Bruce in the forest without any guidance, and is currently perched half-asleep on the man’s wrist. Redbird still hasn’t dared ask about it yet.
When they stop for lunch he realises that today’s reticence in his companion is due more to tiredness than to an unwillingness to converse when Bruce dismounts, expertly knots Tim's reins around a low branch, and sits down on a gnarled knot of roots. The hawk, still without restraints of any kind, is shifted gently to his knee and Bruce leans back against the tree trunk, drawing his thick cloak more securely around him. “We’ll rest here for an hour. Don’t wander. Don’t steal the horse. I will find you if you do.”
“I cherish your trust,” Redbird grouses, slumping down by Tim's forelegs. That he had been planning to do just that is irrelevant. Now, though, he doesn’t value his chances with that hawk staring at him. “Why are you so tired? You weren’t the one with the weird dreams.”
It’s the most interest he’s had all day, and Redbird seizes at it.
“Yeah, it was strange! I dreamed that I woke up and found someone dressed in your cloak talking to Tim.”
This seems to grab Bruce’s attention; he lifts his head and makes an enquiring noise. Redbird nods, warming to the story. “It was uncanny! I think it was a man but I’m not sure; I couldn’t see in the darkness. He greeted Tim, and then went over to the door. I tried to stop him but he said –”
Redbird wrinkles his brow, trying to remember. Bruce’s two-word interjection holds more intense interest than all of his interactions today, and Redbird wonders at it. “Yes. I told him not to go outside, because the wolves were howling, and he said that it was alright, that it was just a dream and not to worry. He went out and met a wolf, an actual wolf! It let him approach it, even touch it, and that was when I knew it was a dream. I went back to sleep, or at least, I dreamed I was awake, thinking about going back to sleep. It was very strange.”
Bruce only smiles a very private smile and leans back against the tree.
“I’m not mad!”
“No, I know. Dreams are mysterious things. This man…did he have a name?”
Redbird scrunches his forehead. “He didn’t mention it. Why?”
Bruce lifts a hand and begins caressing the soft red-gold feathers of the hawk’s chest. “Well, he might wander into my dreams.” He looks down at the hawk with something in his face Redbird doesn’t recognise. “Wouldn’t it be nice to call him by name, and pretend we’d met before?”
Redbird hums in bemusement, watching the way the hawk chirps ever-so-softly up at Bruce. The man sits silently for another moment or two, and then looks back up at Redbird. “Then again, eating too much before bed will give you strange dreams.” He tugs his hood further over his face and settles more comfortably against the tree. “Rest. The bird will alert us if anyone comes.”
So Bruce saw the extra cured sausage Redbird stole from the saddlebags. He’ll have to be more careful around him. With a shrug, Redbird lounges back against the tree and starts on his apple, watching the enigmatic swordsman and the vigilant hawk perched on his knee.
Aren’t birds supposed to have yellow eyes? The hawk’s eyes are a bright, clear blue.
* * *
Talon nurses the horse through the last of the countryside and then pushes it back to a gallop through Aquila’s streets. A young soldier hurries out to take care of the shuddering, sweating beast when he reaches the courtyard outside the Bishop’s personal residence, and Talon bares his teeth at the long-robed brothers who stand nearby in idle contemplation while he single-handedly keeps this God-forsaken citadel running.
Unsurprisingly, he is not accosted on his way to see Raptor; whether that is due to his expression or his reputation Talon neither knows nor cares.
Stalking into the inner courtyard, the green grass vivid compared to the dusty country he’s just ridden through, Talon snarls at all of the household staff who get in his way and strides over to the Bishop. He’s watching a dark-haired man perform a languorous dance under an awning in the corner.
“Have you found the criminal?” the Bishop asks, not looking away from the dancer.
Standing to attention, Talon responds, “He is not in my custody at the present moment.”
“And you expect to find him in my garden?” Raptor snaps, whirling around. “What is so necessary that you turned away from the pursuit and saw fit to report to me unwashed and unshaven?”
“Wayne has returned.”
The Bishop stills.
“Walk with me,” he demands curtly, and Talon loosens his dagger in its sheath just in case as he falls into step with the Bishop.
“The criminal Todd travels with him,” Talon adds before they leave the courtyard. The dancing boy and the woman plying the strings are not much in the way of witnesses, but however…volatile the Bishop can be, Talon knows he confines his rages to his quarters, out of the sight of his impressionable flock.
“And the hawk?”
“…Your Grace?” Talon enquires, staring at the Bishop’s back.
“There must be a hawk,” the Bishop snaps, and Talon stares. Raptor approves of imagery – witness both his and the Bishop’s titles – but this sounds more specific. “This bird is not to be harmed, is that clear? The day he dies, a new Captain of the Guard will supervise your execution.”
Talon dare not bare his teeth like he so wants to. Instead he can only bow slightly in acquiescence and follow the Bishop as he strolls onwards, back to his sanguine self as if the snarl of rage had not occurred.
“Good,” Raptor purrs. “You see, we live in difficult times. This drought has sapped the people’s resources, and prevented them from paying their proper tribute to the church. But last night…the Lord Almighty visited me in my sleep.”
He makes sure no expression crosses his face, but all the same Talon is glad Raptor’s back is turned. The Lord of which realm? Above, or Below?
“He told me that Darkness had been given form, and was travelling amongst us. He told me that his name,” and here the Bishop swings around once more, “is Bruce Wayne. Go.”
As he departs, he hears Raptor clap his hands once at one of his lackeys, a sharp, ringing sound. “Get me Deathstroke.”
* * *
The afternoon is spent trudging through the damp, misty forest, avoiding the drips of rain escaping through the canopy overhead. The hawk has gone off to do whatever hawks do, though every now and then Redbird hears its eerie shrieking call resound through the forest, and Bruce is leading Tim with Redbird, clad in an old cloak Bruce had fished out of a saddle bag, rambling alongside, chattering. He can’t help it, he spent too long playing mute in the dungeons since the guards in Aquila never appreciated his conversation. Bruce doesn’t seem to either, but at least he doesn’t wallop Redbird into silence. He just grunts occasionally, but Redbird can work with that – he talks often enough to himself that he’s used to one-sided conversations. He covers his latest heists, debates with himself about the effectiveness of the Bishop’s guards, discusses the rival merits of different gemstones, and the benefits of halberds compared to mauls.
“…mauls are ineffective in the hands of anyone without training, since you’re more likely to drop it on your own foot than strike an opponent,” he finishes. “Longswords are a little like that. Yours is a prime example.” Since keeping his fingers away from things that don’t belong to him is an instinct he’s fairly sure he was born without, Redbird tugs the blade from its scabbard under Tim’s saddle and promptly overbalances. He lands in an ungainly heap on the forest floor clutching the sword and waves it about. “See?”
“Put that back,” Bruce snaps, rounding on him.
“Fine, no need to panic,” Redbird tuts, but can’t resist swinging it around once he’s on his feet again. It’s a well-balanced weapon and very finely made, but it’s too heavy and too long for a man like him with his whipcord strength and scrawny build. As if to illustrate this point, he accidentally embeds the blade into a nearby tree.
Bruce drops Tim’s reins and stalks forward. “What did I just say?”
Redbird retreats, hands up. “Alright, no need to bristle like a wild boar.”
The captain wrenches the blade free and gives it a brief polish with the corner of his cloak. He takes particular care around the hilt, and Redbird sees what meagre sunlight there is glint off the gems embedded in the metal.
“Nice sword,” he offers, rubbing the unaccustomed strain from his wrists.
“It has been passed down through my family for generations,” Bruce replies distantly, “and has never known defeat.” He traces the engravings around the precious stones before gesturing to each in turn. “This obsidian bears my family crest, and this emerald represents our alliance with the League of Krypton. This one…” he trails off, thumb rubbing over the ruby set just above where the blade joins the hilt. “This one was my father’s, from the Crusades.” He flips the sword over and touches the empty hollow mirroring the position of his father’s gem with something wistful in his eyes. “This…”
“You surely don’t think I took that one,” Redbird protests as Bruce pauses and flicks a quick glance at him.
“This is mine to fill,” Bruce says shortly, returning from whatever melancholia he had been cast into and replacing the sword in its sheath. “Each generation is called upon to complete a quest.”
“And what’s yours?” enquires Redbird, taking Tim’s reins and tugging the beast along after him as he follows Bruce’s determined stride through the woods.
The silence stretches for so long that Redbird thinks Bruce has decided not to answer yet again when the man says, “I must kill a man.”
“What? But you said –”
“I know,” Bruce snarls. “If there was another way, believe that I would take it. As it is…”
“Well,” Redbird jests, trying to restore the light-hearted atmosphere of earlier, “does this walking corpse have a name?”
Bruce turns his head just enough for Redbird to see the sneer on his lips. “His Grace, the Bishop of Aquila.”
Redbird gapes at him. “The Bishop. Of Aquila. I see.” He drops Tim’s reins and begins to retreat, picking at his sleeves. “Well, you obviously have a great deal to do and I’ve been enough of a burden to you. I’m sure I won’t get eaten in the woods, so there’s no need to worry about me. Best of luck!” He sketches a brief bow and marches determinedly off towards the right where the trees are thinner.
“I need you to guide me into the Keep,” Bruce says behind him.
“Not on the life of my mother! Even if I knew who she was.”
“You’re the only one who has escaped from there in a century. I can’t walk in through the front door, and Talon will have all the side passages watched. You’re the only one who, by your own words, has seen the lowest circle of Aquila’s dungeons and lived to tell the tale.”
“It was pure chance!” Redbird says, throwing his hands into the air. Bruce is watching him with a calm certainty that irritates as much as it intimidates. “I fell down a drain and followed my nose,” he finally admits under that steady blue stare.
Bruce's expression doesn't change and Redbird wants to throw something at him. “I have waited two years for an opportunity to strike back, and you will be my guide.”
“I got lucky!”
“Fights are made up of skill, certainly, but all the best swordsmen know that luck plays a part. It is part of your skill to bend that luck to your own ends.”
“Are you even listening to me? There are strange forces at work in your life, strange ones where men appear from nowhere and talk to wolves. I don’t understand them, and to be honest, they worry me. You have given me my life, but the truth is I can never repay you. I have nothing to give except that life, and won’t risk it for something I don’t even like, let alone understand.” Bruce is still watching him with that imperturbable half-smile and Redbird stumbles on. “I don’t think you’d kill me for that.”
Bruce says nothing so Redbird gives him a little salute and walks carefully toward the edge of the little clearing they had passed into. For a few blissful seconds, he thinks he’s free – until with a thump and a shudder of metal the longsword buries itself into the tree he’s just passing.
He turns to see Bruce standing nonchalantly by Tim’s saddle, one eyebrow raised.
“…I’ll gather some firewood,” Redbird says, resigned. For the moment.
* * *
The full moon sails overhead, dodging the clouds scudding across the sky with a grace Redbird wishes he could emulate. If he had been quicker on his feet with more muscle under his jerkin, he wouldn’t be in his present situation.
Sighing to himself for at least the twelfth time in the last hour, he squirms and twists and doesn’t go anywhere. All very well for Bruce to just leave him here in the middle of the forest with the promise that he’d be back in the morning after doing whatever it was he did at night so far away from the camp, but did he really have to tie him to a tree?
The sound of a chase distracts him from his uncharitable thoughts, and Redbird strains his eyes.
There! Chasing a rabbit through the forest is a young man clad in breeches and a shirt that’s too big for him with a belt cinched around his waist. The silvery light of the full moon is enough to illuminate the man’s features as he darts around the forest in pursuit of the rabbit, and Redbird hesitantly identifies this mysterious figure darting through the trees as the shadowy man from the night before, strange as that may be. At this point, Redbird is no longer surprised by anything uncanny happening near Bruce Wayne.
The rabbit abruptly veers towards the camp with the man close on its tail. They’re behind Redbird’s back now but from the rustling and the Come here, little wretch, he guesses the rabbit has dived into a bush to escape its pursuer. He knows how it feels.
The rustling ceases and he imagines the man looking left and right for the source of the voice. “I’m up here. Remember me?”
The man laughs softly as he takes in the scene. “Ah, Redbird! What are you doing up there?”
Redbird squirms a bit more. “Well, you just missed the Bishop’s guards. There were at least half-dozen of them; we had a terrible fight.”
The mystery man, Redbird can now see as he rounds the tree, has a more light-hearted face than the taciturn captain Redbird has been forced to accompany. “Why didn’t they kill you?” he asks, twirling his dagger around in nimble fingers.
“I asked them myself, you know, after I defeated five of them. The sixth man, he ambushed me like a coward and tied me up.”
“What did they say?”
“That they preferred to leave that honour for the Bishop, of course.”
“Oh, I see…” breathes the young man, nodding seriously while his eyes twinkle.
Sensing an opportunity, Redbird adds, “Cut me loose, they’re coming back!”
“They are, are they?” the man replies, voice lilting with mirth, and Redbird does not appreciate such blatant disbelief in his stories on top of all the nonsense of the day.
“Look, a giant owl just examined me with the kind of interest I usually don’t accept until after dinner and a dance. On top of that, I’ve had to deal with the most block-headed grump of a man I’ve ever met badger me about returning to prison, which I can assure you I won’t do. I don’t know who you are or how you keep finding us, but surely you have to understand that!”
Something in his frustrated rant finally appears to have gotten through to the mysterious man, and the laugh has been extinguished from his eyes.
“So that’s why you’re here. That’s why we’re going back. Oh, Bruce...” The man stares off into the gloom of the forest for a moment, his free hand pinching the bridge of his nose before sliding back through his hair. When his eyes flicker back to Redbird, the captive is not too proud to try his best pleading expression. A deep, silent sigh lifts the man’s shoulders, and he shakes his head as his arms drop from where they were wrapped around his chest. “Believe me, Redbird, no-one knows imprisonment better than I. We can’t ask that of you, but if you don’t run fast enough Bruce will find you anyway and I won’t be able to talk him out of it.”
“Thank you…” Redbird breathes as the man approaches the tree and begins sawing at the rope.
A second later he feels his bonds break and Redbird feels somewhat hysterically like the sombre gloom of the forest has become the delicate shading of fine charcoal etchings, beautiful in the eyes of its beholder. He doesn’t quite trust the man not to change his mind and grab him, the strange familiarity in the way he talks of Bruce hinting at a loyalty not long outweighed by the pleas of a thief, but a wolf’s howl in the distance diverts his rescuer’s attention. The man tilts his head like a bird, staring off into the dim forest, but that’s all Redbird sees before he slips away into the night.
“Thanks very much!” he calls over his shoulder, giddy with glee. “Tell the captain he ties a wicked knot!”
* * *
The warmth of the sun is the blessing and curse it always is and Bruce stares at the colours of the sunrise as he harnesses Tim. They’re very near the edge of the forest, and as the light begins filtering through the trees he makes his way over to the plains beyond. Tim trots forward, eager to be out of the confining wood, and Bruce scans the sky for his other half.
With a lilting cry, the hawk glides down from the heavens. Bruce brings Tim to a halt and when he stretches out his arm, the hawk lands on his wrist in an animal show of obedience Bruce is grateful for out here, even as it makes his stomach churn.
“Good morning,” he says tenderly instead and the bird chitters in response. “Another sunrise, I know, but perhaps…well, first we must find that Redbird.”
* * *
The land rolls in waves before him and while it’s not exactly flat, at least it isn’t covered by that dismal forest. By mid-morning Redbird has climbed one of the old crumbling fortifications of days long passed to see if there are any landmarks he can use. What he finds is a small camp clustered a little distance away – with horses. Excellent.
He bunches his muscles in preparation to leap down to the ground, and then senses someone behind him.
Heart in his mouth, Redbird reaches back. Armour.
A gauntleted hand assists his speedy rise, and Redbird winces as he’s caught and man-handled down the slope towards the camp by one of Captain Talon’s guards. The rest come out to meet him, jeering, and the day, which started out so promising, has just taken a turn for the very worse.
“Well, you’re far away from the sewers, little vulture,” the lieutenant from the inn sneers, strolling over. “This time the drinks are on me.”
“Kind of you to offer, but I’d rather you and your breath stay far away from me,” Redbird snaps in return. The lieutenant’s face darkens and he grabs a fistful of Redbird’s shirt, yanking him forward.
Redbird wrinkles his nose. “What did I just say about space?” The hand at his throat tightens and twists, and his shirt collar digs into his neck. “Unngh…the man with a black horse, yes? Short temper, long face? I saw him…riding south. Toward Aquila.”
A greying, clean-shaven soldier by the lieutenant’s shoulder scoffs. “They will ride north, sir.”
Redbird stares at him, affronted. “We don’t know each other quite well enough for you to make those assumptions about me.”
“And yet you knew we would,” muses the lieutenant, and Redbird’s heart sinks as the man smiles. “We ride south. Toward Aquila.”
He strides off and Redbird tries without success to prevent last night’s story from being made real. He’s soon overpowered, though to his black amusement the sixth man does ambush him from behind, and he’s fairly sure the likelihood of a mysterious man showing up to save him this time is non-existent. At least Wayne wasn’t likely to kill him, even if he did kidnap him – the same can’t be said for the guards.
Damn. Even if he could escape he’s not conceited enough to think the guards won’t kill him – they might be saving his final humiliating death for Aquila and the public square but an arrow in the back during an escape attempt will be looked upon as unfortunate yet necessary. Redbird curses and tries to look over his shoulder. Surely by now Bruce will have discovered his apparent escape; he should be on his way.
Any time now.
Bruce, this is not the time to be fashionably late.
They’re passing through a small farm a few hours away from where he was caught, Redbird bound and gagged and rather out of charity with the world, when finally he hears a familiar shrill krreee echo through the valley. Relief shoots through his veins even as the guards, concealed behind the farm’s rough hay bales, begin loading their crossbows. Redbird takes back every bad thought he had about that taciturn grouch as he rotates his chained arms from behind his back up over his head and struggles to reach his gag, and when the soldier on whose horse he’s mounted notices his captive’s movements and tries to stop him, Redbird bites him.
The angry shout rings out, and Redbird hopes that’s enough to warn Bruce as he falls from the horse and wriggles away. The startled chirrup of the hawk thrust from its perch into the sky suggests it is, and the soldiers, having lost the element of surprise, surge forward. He gets out of the way of pounding hooves as quickly as he can and watches Bruce dodge the crossbow bolts from Tim’s back before flinging his own throwing knives at exposed and vulnerable arms.
His aim is impeccable and four soldiers wheel away, cursing. Two more, just out of range, level their crossbows at Bruce and Redbird snatches up some nearby rocks. One fires before he can distract them and the arrow embeds itself into Bruce’s shoulder; the other he catches in the head with a well-thrown stone.
The jerk of the crossbow sends the arrow soaring straight into the air, and directly into the left wing of the hawk wheeling overhead.
It screams in pain and Bruce yells in answer as he sees it plummet. Redbird feels sick to his stomach at the sight, tugging the gag the rest of the way off his mouth. Of the last two soldiers, one races forward, thinking Bruce incapacitated, and Redbird watches in awe as Bruce rips the arrow from his shoulder and then smashes his fist into the soldier’s head as his horse brings them abreast, pushing him from the saddle. Wheeling Tim around, the horse rearing and plunging, Bruce unsheathes the massive longsword to face the last solider.
The man takes one look at him and flees.
Redbird dodges out of the way and expects Bruce to give chase, but he wrenches Tim around again and gallops instead towards where the wounded hawk has landed. Redbird chases after him, arriving in time to see Bruce toss the sword aside and fall to his knees a pace or two away from the chittering bird.
“Easy,” he croons, creeping forward, “easy now, it’ll be alright, don’t be afraid...” Bruce reaches out to caress the hawk’s head and then barks at Redbird over his shoulder to get some cloth from his saddlebag. Redbird springs into action, and when he offers the spare cloak to Bruce, he watches as the man tenderly tucks the material around the bird, careful of the arrow still impaled in its wing.
He stands once the hawk is wrapped up and cradled on its back, and approaches Redbird. “Take him. Find help.”
“Me?” Redbird repeats incredulously, walking backward as fast as Bruce is walking forward.
“You’re the only one I have.”
“But the poor thing is done for,” Redbird points out, backing into Tim.
“Don’t say that,” snarls Bruce, seizing a handful of his collar and shaking him. Redbird stares at him, alarmed, and Bruce visibly tries to control his temper as the hawk squawks faintly at the abrupt movement. “Follow the western road. You’ll find an empty manor tended by a seneschal named Pennyworth. Give him the hawk, he will know what to do.”
“Bruce, I don’t think you understand –”
“Get on my horse.”
“You’re the only one who can ride him!”
“You will do what I tell you,” Bruce growls, ferocious as any wild beast. “Get on my horse now!”
Redbird isn’t willing to bet his life against Bruce’s control of his temper, and reluctantly clambers onto Tim’s back. Bruce hands him the swaddled hawk and he cradles it in the crook of his arm as he reaches for the reins.
“And know this,” Bruce adds before he steps back. “If you fail, I will find you. Go.”
Redbird shudders and nudges Tim into motion.
The sun sinks towards the horizon as they gallop onwards, land flying by beneath them, and every so often Redbird checks on the hawk. It’s still alive, but barely.
This is absolute madness. He has two hours in which to think of all the many ways this can go wrong, and he hopes with all his heart this Pennyworth can work miracles. Part of him is tempted to pitch the hawk off the horse and ride for the nearest port, but the memory of Bruce’s eyes, blazing and ferocious, dogs his footsteps and he doesn’t quite put it past the man to do exactly as he promised. Redbird already spends most of his life – once again prolonged by Bruce, and he groans at that realisation – looking over his shoulder for the guards; he has no desire to add an avenging swordsman to that list.
Finally the walled manor comes into view. It’s perched on top of a cliff, looking out over the land, and he sighs in relief.
“There it is,” he tells the hawk, which somehow looks like it wants to bite him before it dies. “Well, you can’t be happier than me to arrive, bird.”
Sunset is beginning to paint the sky when he reaches the gate. “Hello,” Redbird bellows. “Hello, open up!”
“Good evening,” is the unexpected response after a minute of Redbird’s shouting, and Redbird sees a prim, properly-dressed elderly man peer over the top of the ramparts to the left of the gate. “May I enquire as to your needs?”
“If you’re Pennyworth, I was told to bring you this wounded bird,” Redbird replies, gesturing at the hawk.
“Really? I am indeed Pennyworth, but I am afraid I fail to see how I can help, sir, unless you’re looking for a companion for dinner.”
“What? No! We can’t eat this bird; it belongs to a man named Wayne.”
The effect this has on the man is immediate. “Good lord! Bring him in, quickly!” The seneschal disappears from the wall and a moment later the gate swings open.
Redbird urges Tim forward. Pennyworth has already set off up the steep carriageway toward the house, and calls over his shoulder, “Hurry, up here.”
He catches up to the seneschal at the long straight stretch up to the front door, where the carriageway turns into a bridge over a stream: it seems the great house has a small moat as well as outer fortifications.
“Careful. Leave Timothy here, I shall see to him later. Come now, walk on the left side only.”
When they enter the house Redbird follows the man’s pointed finger and makes his way towards a back room as Pennyworth locks and bars the door behind them. The hawk still lives but its chirps are silent and it doesn’t struggle much as Redbird puts it down – “Gently, gently,” Pennyworth urges – on some lush furs covering the cot.
“Thank you, but you must leave us now,” Pennyworth says quietly, approaching the bird.
“Can’t I help?” Redbird asks, and the seneschal shakes his head.
“No, thank you. It’s best if you wait outside.”
Redbird quietly retreats, only lingering at the door long enough to hear the man whisper, “Do not be alarmed. Master Bruce was right to send you to me, I know what to do. But first we must wait a little, for the sun to set.”
Why? Why any of this? The possibility of finally gaining a few answers outweighs his desire to find the kitchen – Redbird hurries up the stairs in the entrance hall and then climbs over the balustrade so he can tuck himself into a small niche in the wall. There, he waits.
Pennyworth soon appears, muttering a list of herbs under his breath, and though he locks the door behind him Redbird is better than good with a lock-pick.
He slips down to the ground, makes sure Pennyworth has vanished into the sprawling manor, and begins to work on the keyhole. It takes him a few minutes but he isn’t disturbed, and when the lock finally yields Redbird kisses the pick in joy. Pulling the door open, he slips inside, eager to find a hiding place and see what’s really going on.
What he finds instead is the young man from the past two nights lying under the furs, an arrow in his left shoulder.
Redbird freezes where he stands, turns on his heel, and hurries back to the door. Just before he reaches it, the man in the bed asks desperately,
“Bruce, is he –?”
Peeking back over his shoulder, Redbird answers, “He’s fine.”
The man slumps in relief, exhaling shakily. Redbird edges away from the door and back into the room, curiosity overcoming shock once more. “There was a terrible battle. Bruce fought like a lion. The hawk –” he creeps closer to the bed as the man lifts a hand to the arrow with a grimace. “The hawk was wounded. You…know that, don’t you?”
Redbird licks his lips, fighting the obvious conclusion. “Are you flesh? Or are you spirit?”
The man tilts his head to look at him, grief dulling his blue eyes. “I am sorrow.”
Redbird retreats, out of his depth entirely. Just before he reaches the door, Pennyworth returns. “How –” he begins to ask when he sees Redbird inside the locked room, but cuts himself off once he notices Redbird staring at the man on the bed. Silence falls.
“I think this time you might want to stay out,” Pennyworth says eventually, guiding Redbird outside. He doesn’t fight it, and slumps back against the closed door once he’s over the threshold.
* * *
Alfred mixes the herbs to the best of his considerable ability, ignoring both the storm crashing overhead and the occasional solitary howl out there in the night. He casts an eye over his supplies and takes quiet satisfaction in the fact that his hand does not shake.
Far away in Aquila, the same cannot be said for the sleeping Bishop.
Nor can it be said for Redbird, curled up in the window of a room on the other side of the manor trying to understand the facts as he comprehends them.
The man in the bed, however, does not shiver or shake or flinch when Alfred crouches down beside him and begins smearing the herbs around the arrow. He smiles gently down at his patient and clasps the wooden shaft.
A nod and a swallow are his replies, and Alfred tightens his grip. “Try to relax.”
A weak huff of laughter meets this instruction, and then –
A yell rips its way through the sound of thunder; Redbird cringes and hunches; the Bishop moans and thrashes; a wolf cries out into the night; and Alfred presses cloth down against the bleeding wound.
* * *
Redbird hears the wolf howl again when he’s down in the kitchens. The storm has passed and midnight approaches; the manor is so still and the world around it so silent after the storm he can almost believe he’s in another world, a dream-world, a realm of spirits far away from what he’s accustomed to. Almost. He’s never had quite the imagination necessary for dreaming this up – usually the weirdest he gets is a pile of clay telling him to beware of men smiling and pits of tar that glow green.
He looks around as the sound trails off, feeling the other pieces of this impossible puzzle fall into place, and picks up the two earthenware cups he’s just filled with mead. He brings one over to Mr Pennyworth, sitting by the table.
“It’s him, isn’t it,” Redbird says as the wolf cries out once more. “The wolf, somehow, it’s him.”
Mr Pennyworth glances over at him. “A short while ago you were wishing you had nothing to do with this.”
“I can’t just forget it,” Redbird objects. “There’s a man in the bed where once there was a hawk with an arrow in the same place, and a wolf that knows him and is never around when Bruce is.”
The seneschal accepts the cup but scrutinises Redbird instead of drinking. “What is your name, young man?”
“Redbird,” he responds.
“Not your nickname,” he says. “We have quite an aviary already.”
“Jason Todd,” he answers, and the syllables feel strange in his mouth.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Master Todd. I am Alfred Pennyworth. If not for you, we would have lost our hawk today.”
“So who is he?” Jason asks impatiently.
Alfred resumes slicing and buttering bread, passing Jason a fresh sandwich every now and then and watching with the pleasure of a chef finally cooking for someone else as he polishes them off. “His name is Richard Grayson, known to those who love him as Dick. His father was the Comte d’Gray, a gentle man who did not deserve what befell him in Antioch four years ago. Richard’s mother had died the year before, so he was sent to his father’s sister in Aquila. I shall never forget the first time I saw him. He is fearless and effusive grace. It is like looking…”
“At a spirit made solid?” Jason guesses, and Alfred smiles.
“You too? He charms everyone he meets without trying, always. He brought such cheer and brightness into Aquila, and captivated the city. Even His Grace the Bishop could think of nothing and no one else.”
“The Bishop?” Jason repeats, a prickle of foreboding racing up his spine. “He loved Dick?”
Alfred purses his lips. “As near as that man can come to such an emotion, yes. His passion was a sort of madness; he was a man possessed. He had loved Dick’s mother too, you see, who chose the Comte d’Gray instead. So, when he heard nineteen years later that the son of the Lady Mary Lloyd had come to Aquila, he set out to claim him for himself. Master Dick extended the hand of friendship, but Raptor grew more possessive after each encounter and Master Dick recoiled. He sent back all of the Bishop’s letters unopened, his poems unread, his flowers untouched. His heart was already lost, you see,” Alfred smiles at the candles flickering between them, “to the Captain of the Guard.”
Jason lowers the cup he’s just lifted to his lips. “Bruce Wayne.”
“Indeed. The light Master Dick brought to Aquila fell upon Master Bruce like the sun upon a flower. He has faced tragedy in his life too, and sorely needed the brightness and joy Master Dick freely gave. In turn, Master Dick needed a loving home and a family after being uprooted, alone, from the only life he ever knew and thrust into the Bishop’s poisonous circle. It must have been love at first sight, or at least love at first spar. The way they fit together…I have yet to see its equal. This is one of the Wayne family’s estates, you know. I have been the family seneschal since before Master Bruce was born, and he used to steal Master Dick away and bring him here on the rare occasion they could escape Aquila without notice. The Bishop knew nothing of their love, but every day saw it grow stronger and deeper and richer. Until…”
Alfred trails off, such sorrow shuttering his face that Jason, were he uninvolved, would swear that one of the lovers had died. He stands, fetches some mead, and tops up both their cups.
“Until?” he asks, waiting for Alfred to take a sip.
“They were betrayed,” is the quiet, solemn answer.
“They were meant to be safe in one of the family houses, but a servant who saw them together told his brother. His brother, a worker in the Keep of Aquila, carried the news straight to the Bishop himself. The household did not realise at first what the servant had done, nor did they expect the terrible, twisted form the Bishop’s revenge would take. He lost sanctity and reason, swore that if he could not have Dick then no man would. So they fled from Aquila. The Bishop followed, though, never more than an hour behind: there was never a more vicious bird of prey. He called upon the powers of darkness, the likes of which should have been lost to the ages, and sought a way to damn the lovers.”
Alfred moves the candle closer like he fears that even speaking of the evil powers will draw retribution down on them, and Jason can’t blame him.
“They kept out of his reach but just barely, fleeing through the country and relying on their own strength and ingenuity as well as the assistance of the few friends not afraid of incurring the Bishop’s wrath. In his fury, his frustration, the Bishop finally made a dreadful bargain. For a man of God, he fell so low as to consort with the powers of Hell below and gained knowledge of a terrible curse. You have seen it working, Master Jason. By day, Dick is the graceful hawk you brought to me, and by night, as you have already guessed, Bruce speaks only with the howl of a wolf.”
Jason swears softly to himself, scrubbing his hands over his face. Alfred rests a hand on his shoulder and offers him another sandwich made with the cured meats the seneschal seems somehow to know he loves.
“They have the minds of beasts too, you see, when they take their animal form. They have no memory of their human half-lives.”
“But I’ve seen how Bruce lets Dick go near him in wolf form! Surely that’s not usual? And as a hawk Dick seems well-trained.”
“Any animal can be trained, will grow used to a constant presence, but they are not capable of higher reasoning than that, Master Jason. If, God forbid, Bruce felt threatened as a wolf, he could attack Dick without a second thought, and that would kill him more surely than any curse. They travel together, never touching in the flesh, haunted by the anguish of a split second between sunset and sunrise, and sunrise and sunset, when they can almost touch…but not.”
“Always together,” Jason murmurs, staring miserably at the half-eaten sandwich on his plate, “and forever apart.”
“As long as there is day and night, yes,” answers Alfred. “For as long as they both shall live.”
It’s a sick and twisted mockery of a wedding vow, and Jason has felt this rush of violence before but only in a fight. Now, however, the desire to tear the Bishop apart is coursing through his veins. If he feels like this, how must Bruce feel? He’s sworn to never kill, and yet seems hell-bent on going after the Bishop of Aquila.
“You have stumbled into a tragic story, Jason Todd,” Alfred says. “Whether you like it or not, you seem to be lost in it with the rest of us. Get some rest, dear boy. If Master Bruce returns to us tomorrow you’re going to need it.” He rises and places a gentle hand on Jason’s shoulder for a moment before gliding quietly from the kitchen.
Jason stays at the table for a few long moments, but the flames of the candles don’t hold any answers and the darkness of the night outside seems to be creeping in.
The Bishop flicks through the pile of wolf pelts piled on the storeroom’s table with an expression carved from marble. His sleep had been restless and dogged by phantoms of the past, haunted too by the ceaseless need to find him; torn from his chambers by news of the mercenary’s arrival he had found Deathstroke sprawled by the kitchen fire and already halfway through a barrel of the cathedral’s prized mulled wine. Insolence is something Raptor does not tolerate, but Deathstroke is…useful, and vexingly disinclined to be intimidated. Talon should take lessons, the fool, but then again, Raptor prefers obedient fools.
“Useless,” he announces, replacing the cap on the end of his holy stave and concealing the blade there.
“My traps are full,” shrugs the mercenary. “I can’t kill every wolf that lives. Since the plague there are more wolves than men.”
The Bishop takes three even breaths, fingers tight around his stave. “There is a man.”
“Your Grace?” Deathstroke sounds only mildly interested, and Raptor refuses to relinquish his composure in front of him.
“A man…with skin like bronze and eyes of deepest sapphire. He travels by night, only by night. His sun is the moon, and his name is Richard. You might find him going by Dick.”
Deathstroke’s eyes narrows intently.
“Find him and you find the wolf. The wolf I want dead. The wolf who…loves him. The black wolf. See to it.”
* * *
Jason is sprawled in the room’s only chair when Dick stirs some hours later, and he sits up as Dick’s hand goes to his injured shoulder.
“Don’t move,” Jason says, reaching for a cup of water. “You might start the bleeding again.”
Dick accepts the drink and then settles back, eyes on Jason. “You didn’t run fast enough, Sparrow?”
Jason snorts. “Most people call me Jason the Redbird. And I did, but then the guards caught me. Bruce just kind of caught me from the guards. He’s persistent like that.”
Dick has a very direct, birdlike stare, and Jason drops his gaze when his eyes start watering. Dick smiles sadly.
“He is that, but this is not a life anyone would wish to stumble into,” he murmurs. “Thank you for getting me to Alfred. I can’t ask any more of you, and neither can he.”
Jason can’t find anything to say to that, or to the question that lurks in the tight lines around Dick’s eyes. Dick nods slightly to himself and turns away, and since when did this man who can’t be more than a year or two older than him have the power to tug on Jason’s rusty heartstrings?
“Well, I don’t know about that. Have you seen him when he’s in a temper? This is your most important task, and if you don’t get this hawk to Pennyworth I will find you,” he growls in an absurd mimicry of Bruce’s gravelly voice. Dick’s lips twitch but he doesn’t look over, and Jason can see a deep sigh lift and lower his chest. Rolling his eyes, he searches for some more words just in case Alfred scolds him for sending Dick into a heartbroken decline. “It’s not something I ever thought I would stumble across, but…I want to help, Dick. No one should have live like this.” Besides, it isn’t Dick’s fault he seems to be just another a fly caught in this web, though something tells him it wouldn’t be particularly tactful to use that turn of phrase in front of him.
Dick tilts his head back towards Jason, eyes warming. “Really?”
“On my life,” Jason says cheerfully, and watches Dick smile properly, eyelids drooping. He stands quietly, wondering, and heads to the entrance hall, which has a fine defensive view of the grey pre-dawn surroundings, where he runs into Alfred.
“Does he know? That you believe you betrayed them by not keeping a closer eye on your staff?”
Alfred stares at him and then glances to the closed door. “No, I do not believe so. Master Bruce does, however. I am certain he blames me, though not nearly as much as I blame myself. I have been his guardian since he was a child, sentry to these halls, and I failed him. He forbade me from accompanying them, and thus I exiled myself to this far-off manor, searching for a way to undo the curse. You would be surprised at the length of a servant’s reach and the strength of our currency of secrets, if there is time in which to apply it. After two years, fate has brought us all back together in the house it which it began.”
“Have you found a way?” Jason asks, shrugging on a thick jerkin Alfred found in one of the upstairs bedchambers.
“Yes, I believe I have. The time for Master Bruce to confront the Bishop draws near.”
“He intends to confront the Bishop,” Jason says through the thick wool. “He thinks he must kill him with the sword of his ancestors.”
“No, he mustn’t!” Alfred wrings his hands. “He can’t, if he kills the Bishop the curse will never be broken.”
Jason opens his mouth to reply but catches sight of something outside. He grabs at Alfred’s shoulder and points to the splash of red – guardsman red – against the countryside.
“Go, look after Master Dick,” Alfred commands, shooing him off. “Quickly!”
Darting off down the hall, Jason tugs open the door and slips inside. “Dick, wake up! We must go, there are guards approaching the gate.”
Dick startles awake and swings his legs out of the cot almost before Jason has finished speaking, tying the sheet around his waist. “Come, this way.”
“Where are we going?” Jason hisses, careening after Dick. “The guards are coming up the drive!”
“Onto the roof; it has more escape routes,” is the whispered answer as Dick sprints up the stairs. He passes three windows without a second glance and then skids to a halt next to one overlooking the terraced roof above the stables. Dick pulls himself through and out, heedless of his wounded shoulder, and Jason follows as they make their way over to a sloping part of the roof where the old part of the building was joined haphazardly to the newer one and scramble up onto the spine. They crouch there, hidden by the shadow of a chimney stack, and listen as the shouts from the guards drift up from the plains below.
“Open the gate, by order of His Holiness the Bishop of Aquila!”
Alfred’s prim and proper objection reaches them a moment later. “What sort of uncivilised hour does his Grace call this? Nonsense, this is a peaceful, respectable house, not some pubic thoroughfare open before dawn!”
“Open up in the name of the Bishop!”
“My dear sir, I have met the Bishop and you look nothing like him.”
“Break it down!” The soldier orders, and Dick chivvies Jason onward.
“Alfred will defend the manor as best he can from the front, but we need to get to where the wall meets the house at the back.”
Half a minute later, they hear a crash and a yell, and Dick laughs. “That was probably the bridge. Alfred told you to walk on the left, yes? The right side is weakened, and will drop you straight through into the moat.”
Jason stares at him. “So much for a peaceful, respectable house.”
Dick shrugs and then winces, clutching at his shoulder. “How else did you think the Waynes remained one of Aquila’s oldest, most powerful families? Don’t fuss, Jason, I’m fine.”
“You’ll start the bleeding again!”
Before they can continue arguing, the sound of the front door swinging open echoes through the grey pre-dawn. “They’re inside, come on!”
Scrambling, sliding and climbing over the dips and points of the roof, Dick leads the way over to the rear of the manor where an old watchtower stands, proudly overlooking the land from the top of the cliff. They’ve just begun scaling the outside when a shout goes up from inside the castle – they’ve been seen from a window, and the last soldier clatters through the door into the interior of the tower and tries to beat them to the top.
Jason reaches the top ahead of Dick and reaches down to help pull him up. Blood is darkening the material at Dick’s shoulder and the man is pale and sweating as he accepts Jason’s hand.
“Quickly, the hatch,” he pants, pointing. Jason leaps for it, landing just as the soldier beneath tries to lift it. “Be careful! Go, Jason, while you can – it’s me they’re after. It won’t be long now, I'll be alright.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Jason retorts. He crouches down, looking for a way to lock the trap door, but recoils when the solider thrusts his sword through the gap, narrowly missing Jason’s eye. He stumbles back, knocks into Dick who’s crouching behind him – and with a shout Dick tips over the tiny wall bordering the top of the watchtower. Jason lunges after him.
Dick catches onto a piece of wood embedded into the mortar but shouts again at the strain in his injured shoulder. Jason curses as he seizes Dick’s wrists, eyes widening when he sees the size of the fall awaiting Dick.
“Hold on!” he shouts, his own shoulders on fire, and curses as Dick’s right wrist slips free. Dick shrieks again at the darkening red patch on his left shoulder and Jason desperately tightens his grip. It’s no good, he can feel Dick’s sweaty skin slipping from his grasp – Bruce is going to kill him –
“No!” he yells, struggling vainly to catch him again. Dick screams again – but this time at an eerie pitch, high and uncanny. As he tumbles through the air, the sun reaches over the horizon to catch him with long, quick fingers; Jason watches in awe as feathers overtake skin and wings replace arms until, with space to spare above the ground, Dick swoops away into the dawn, a hawk once more.
Jason drops his head into his hands and laughs shakily until he doesn’t feel like throwing up anymore. A clatter behind him a moment later reminds him of the guard still trying to force his way onto the top of tower, and he climbs over the shallow wall too. Settling himself on a gargoyle a short distance down, Jason waits.
“Yes?” He looks up to see the soldier glaring at him.
“Where’s the man?”
“He flew away,” Jason responds blithely.
“Where is he?” The guard barks again, unimpressed.
“I swear he flew away!”
When the only sound that reaches him is a pained grunt, he uncurls and looks around. There, barely dressed on the top of the wall circling the cliff, is Bruce, throwing knives in hand and a ferocious scowl on his face.
Jason waves cheerily.
The guard is trussed up and left in an empty room, the knife wound in his arm roughly bandaged, and Jason finishes in time to witness Bruce and Alfred’s tense reunion. When Bruce circles around from the stables up to the front door, Dick perched safely back on his wrist, the seneschal is waiting for him
“I admit I did not expect to hear that you were gathering cobwebs in an abandoned manor, Alfred. I am thankful, however, that you are.” He lifts the wrist on which Dick is resting. “I cannot express my gratitude.”
Alfred approaches him carefully.
“It is unnecessary, Master Bruce. I would never let anything happen to him if it was in my power to prevent it – to either of you. With that in mind I searched for a way to break the curse, and I have found it.”
Bruce says nothing, though Tim fidgets under his tense fingers.
Alfred presses onwards. “Three days hence, the Bishop will hear the confession of the clergy in Aquila’s Cathedral. All you have to do is challenge him, both of you, as men, and the curse will be broken. Both of you will be free.”
“As long as there is night and day, that is true, but in three days’ time there will be a day without a night, and a night without a day. I cannot tell you more than that – it is unclear, but I am sure that it will work.”
Bruce stares down at him. “I have spent those same two years searching, Alfred, with a more personal stake in the matter. I have found nothing. There is nothing to find, unless you are advocating for another arrangement with the Devil. If it is unclear, it is untrue.”
“The greatest curse is the stubbornness of Waynes,” Alfred retorts. “Confound it, Bruce, would you risk never breaking the curse simply because you did not trust information gathered by someone other than yourself? I beg of you, let me atone for my betrayal!”
This finally evokes a startled expression from the marble statue Bruce has become. “Your betrayal?”
Alfred wrings his hands. “You were under my care, the house was meant to be safe, and yet you were discovered!”
“You did not carry the news to the Bishop, Alfred. I never blamed you.”
The relief lifts years from the lines carved into Alfred’s face. “Master Bruce…”
“I could not bring you with me on such a perilous journey, Alfred. You were safer here, and we did not wish to return to a house where the Bishop would so easily find us. It was our curse, our quest. It still is. Thank you for your care of Dick, but our path is ours to walk alone.” With a last, final nod he turns Tim and begins to make his way back down the mountain.
“Bruce!” Alfred calls, incredulous. “Master Bruce, come back here! Why can you not accept you are not alone? That you might be wrong? Are you willing to remain cursed forever, merely to assuage your pride? Master Kent would gladly offer help if you would but ask, as would the Lady of the Amazons!”
Bruce lifts a hand in farewell, unswayed. He really is too stubborn for words, and Jason sighs. Looks like it’s up to him again. He lopes after him, leaving Alfred seething and hopeless by the door.
“Bruce! Bruce? Bruce!”
Bruce finally brings Tim to a halt halfway towards the gate and looks long-sufferingly at him.
“…How’s your shoulder?” he says, uncertain of how else to broach the subject when Bruce has already thrown a wall up between himself and his oldest friend.
The man stares at him, and then shakes his head, smiling slightly. “I am in your debt,” he responds, glancing to Dick.
“Oh, me? No, not at all. Well, maybe just a little.” Jason shifts his weight, glancing between Bruce and Dick. Time to put his tongue to use. Truth may be satisfying, but sometimes a little fabrication is more effective. “Dick wanted me to deliver a message. That he still has hope. He still has faith in you.”
Bruce looks away. “You’re free to go,” he says after a moment.
“Great.” He stares at Bruce, stumped for the moment as to how to persuade him not to ignore them both and ride off down the mountain. “So…you’re off to Aquila?”
“Well…” Jason muses, “It seems that I’m heading in that general direction myself.”
“Really,” drawls Bruce. Jason grins engagingly up at him. “You’d better gather your things. I’m leaving.”
“I’ll be right back, don’t move!” Jason hares off up the path, fist clenched in triumph. “Alfred,” he hisses, reaching the manor’s door. “I’m going with him to Aquila; follow us and we’ll get Dick to persuade Bruce to try your idea.”
“Good man!” Alfred smiles, despair lifting slightly, and Jason gathers his things in a whirlwind.
His hope of slowly softening Bruce towards the idea by introducing it into conversation, though, dies a painful death. He’s jogging along behind Tim on the road leading away from the hills, huffing out, “But if Alfred’s right about breaking the curse…if you and Dick could meet the Bishop as men…” when Bruce snaps,
“You will not speak of that again. Not to me. Not to him. Understand? Now save your breath or I’ll leave you behind.” He spurs Tim into a canter and Jason calls him as many names as he can think of as he lengthens his strides.
The day is quiet otherwise, and although Bruce relents after lunch and lets Jason ride Tim while he walks beside them, the mood is still sombre. Jason sighs when clouds roll in just as they enter the forest they so recently left, and Bruce smirks at him, Dick swooping back down to alight on his wrist.
“Do you think he likes live prey?” Jason asks without thinking, watching the hawk clean his bloody talons, and then wants to kick himself.
Bruce glances up at him, startled, and then at Dick. “I’ve never asked,” he responds shortly.
“I suppose it’s better than going hungry. Do you like raw meat? Which one, rabbit or deer?” If he’s digging a hole, might as well make it a mine and see if he can’t strike gold.
“I don’t remember anything as a wolf. As you say, it’s better than starving.” They push on through a thicket, and when Bruce adds, “Though in taverns now I find myself preferring under-cooked venison. Rabbit is too bony,” Jason sees it for the olive branch it is. Maybe he’s rubbing off on the man – God knows how lonely he must have been.
The afternoon is turned prematurely grey by the storm clouds amassing overhead, and at the next rumble Jason looks up nervously. “Sounds like a big one, Bruce. We’re going to get soaked.”
Bruce gestures for them to halt and looks around. “Find shelter. The sun is going down.”
“Really? How can you tell?”
A wry look is directed up at him. “After so many sunsets?” Bruce reaches for his arm, making sure it’s covered by his thick sleeve. “Take care of him.” He moves Dick across to Jason’s wrist and steps back. The hawk is heavier than Jason expected and he has to adjust his shoulder for the weight. It’s an awkward position, too; how does Bruce do this for hours and regard it as inconsequential?
He glances back as Tim moves off, and – so that’s the expression he didn’t understand. Bruce’s face is open for a moment as he gazes at Dick, and it’s suffused with such tenderness that Jason feels like he’s intruding.
* * *
Warm and dry in the stable of the inn, Jason watches Dick preen his feathers. “Are you hungry?” he asks, thinking back to his tactless question in the forest. Dick ignores him. “Can you understand me, Dick?”
He brushes a finger down Dick’s soft chest, relieved when no sharp beak follows it. “I suppose not. Well, I’m hungry even if you’re not. You know, it used to be my favourite thing for dinner, hawk. I’ve eaten thousands. Used to kill one every other night – I think I’m going to stop talking now.” Jason drops his hand and begins pacing. “Serves me right for getting involved in this nightmare. Day-mare, for you. And a night without a day, and a day without a night – what’s that supposed to mean?” He looks at Dick, who’s clawing idly at the wooden rail he’s balancing on.
“Sunset must be almost here. I’ll wait outside.” He turns around to see the downpour, and pulls a face. “Maybe I’ll just close my eyes.” He rummages in the saddlebags for the clothes he stole as they were passing through the outskirts of the town, and lays out a pair of leggings and a tunic for Dick, grabbing the rest for himself. Disappearing around the corner, he strips and changes.
When Jason remerges, he sees Dick talking to Tim like the first night he saw him, clad in the new clothes.
Dick whirls around, ever-present dagger ready, and then lowers his guard when he recognises him.
“Jason. Are the clothes from you?” At Jason’s nod, he smiles. “Thank you. Red is my favourite colour.”
“Speaking of which, how’s your shoulder? Alfred told me to tell you to make sure you keep it clean.”
“It’s fine, thank you. I’ve had plenty of injuries, or did you think I was a courted noble and Bruce was the only one who could use a sword?”
Jason eyes his dagger warily, and Dick chuckles before the levity fades from his face. Jason knows what he’s going to ask before the words escape Dick’s mouth. “How is he?”
“Fine. Alive, like you, though as angry at the world as always. He’s still refusing Alfred’s help.”
Dick sighs. “He struggles with accepting aide, and Alfred represents everything from before, back when things were good. I wish –” He breaks off with a short huff, turning away.
“You wish you could be there for Bruce? Hold him? Cuddle?” Jason asks wickedly, waggling his eyebrows as suggestively as he can.
Dick blushes hotly and throws Tim’s brush at him. “Don’t be so lewd.”
Jason yelps and ducks, grinning. “He left you in my charge, you know.”
The look Dick levels at him could raze forests and dry rivers, and Jason holds up his hands again, laughing. “It’s true! I sw–”
“Don’t swear on your life,” Dick says, turning away back to Tim. He seems to be in a blue mood tonight, no smile lasting more than a few seconds. “He’s still determined to take us back to Aquila, isn’t he. We haven’t found answers anywhere else.”
Jason nods. Dick sighs, and then runs a hand through his hair, trying to scrub away the melancholy.
“Well, what do you instruct?”
Jason clicks his tongue, thinking. “Well, I think a drink is in order, perhaps a good warm fire too. Some music would be nice, and maybe…a dance or two.”
“Can you spar?” Dick looks him up and down, eyes bright.
“Can I –” Jason eyes him suspiciously as Dick drops into a ready stance in front of him, dagger left by Tim’s saddle.
“Spar. No strikes to the head, no street play like biting and the like. Ready?”
Dick throws the first punch, a light, testing fist meant to touch Jason’s shoulder. He blocks it and jabs out with his own. Dick dances away, and soon enough they’re criss-crossing the floor, blocking strikes and jabs, landing the odd light tap, and feinting a kick or two. Jason is broader and has more current experience even though Dick is taller and more inclined to use an eastern style of fighting with high kicks and twists; they’re evenly matched.
It’s more fun than Jason thought it would be. He’s always enjoyed fighting but has never had the chance to fight casually, to train and test and practice: all of his fights have been for life or limb in the back alleys of towns from here to Aquila and beyond. Their speed increases and their movements become more flamboyant, until Dick manages to trip him and Jason takes him down onto the straw-strewn floor with him. Laughing, they wrestle in the hay like puppies with Tim looking on indulgently until Jason has Dick pinned, his opponent’s weak shoulder giving him an advantage.
“I yield, I yield! Get off, there’s hay in my nose.”
Laughing and panting, Jason flops over onto the floor beside Dick. He’s grinning harder than he has in months, even more than the time he stole a hatpin right out of a lady’s wig and a gust of wind took the tower of hair right off her head and bowled it down the street. “Now I think it’s time for that drink.”
“Aye, sir,” Dick laughs, pushing himself upright and extending a hand down to Jason before brushing off his clothes. “Lead the way.”
Grabbing Bruce’s cloak and the heavy longsword just in case a light-fingered visitor happens upon it while they’re out, Jason throws the material over both their heads and struggles to open the door without letting the wind tear it from his grasp. The storm outside has increased in strength and they exclaim when a gust flicks the cloak back and lets icy rain spray into their faces.
With no cloak to shelter them, the two horses passing by the barn are thrown into sharp, gruesome relief when a flash of lightning illuminates the scene. Dick keens in horror at the sight of the packhorse’s cargo. Wolf pelt upon wolf pelt is piled on its back, blood matted into hair and eye sockets empty and ruined. He cries out again, wordless and anguished, raising a hand towards the snout of one of the darker wolves at the bottom and Jason jerks him back, grip tight around his arms.
“Dick?” The rider says, leering at him, his black and orange livery spattered with blood just like the array of knives on his belt. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you; I’ve heard so much about you. Our papal friend sends his regards.”
This time the shriek is all livid rage and Jason has to haul Dick away before he attempts to rend the man limb from limb.
“Dick, go inside!”
“Don’t you dare order me,” Dick rages, struggling. “If you value your hands, let go!”
“Easy, little men,” the hunter says lazily, clicking to the horse. “I’m not here for you.”
Arms full of a writhing ball of wrath and the unwieldy weight of the sword, Jason spits at him and drags Dick back to the barn, forcing him inside and slamming the door before Dick can regain his balance. “Ride on before you meet the Bishop in hell,” he shouts, bringing Bruce’s sword up and levelling its wicked point at the hunter. “Ride on!”
The man laughs, low and amused, but clicks his tongue and guides his horses on. Jason follows for a few feet, sword ready, but the hunter doesn’t turn around and is soon lost to sight beyond the village.
Jason slumps in relief and lowers the sword, shaking out his sore wrists. “What an awful night,” he grouses, pulling a face as water starts creeping into his boots and down the back of his neck.
Just when he thought it couldn’t get worse, he hears a whinny and the sound of the barn doors clattering open. Tim surges past him into the stormy night, Dick furious and fearful on his back.
“Dick! Dick!” he yells, trying to chase after him, but the mud hampers his progress and Tim’s a fast, strong horse. “He’ll kill me,” Jason says to himself, contemplating his fate. “Bruce will actually kill me. Damn, I knew getting involved was a horrible idea.”
* * *
The forest canopy keeps out most of the rain and Dick urges Tim onwards now he’s not struggling to see more than a few feet ahead at a time. Terror courses through him and the sound of his heart pounding in his ears deafens him. How could he, how could he have been enjoying himself in the warmth when out here Bruce is alone and in danger and hunted and afraid and dea – don’t think like that, he’s not, even the demon calling himself a holy priest couldn’t take him, please –
Years of living off the land have taught Dick to track more successfully than any teacher, and he employs all of his skills now, fighting through the screaming thoughts inside his head. Hoof prints in the leaf litter, broken branches and the faint sounds of tack jingling draws him onward until Dick has to dismount and go on foot rather than risk being heard in return. His cherished dagger – the first courting gift Bruce ever gave him, that perfect summer’s day in Aquila’s busy bustling market – is clenched in his cold fist.
Creeping closer to the clearing, Dick can see the packhorse with its gruesome burden but there’s no sign of the hunter and the other mount. He prowls silently around the edge of the clearing, and in the silence after a roll of thunder hears the faintest rattle of metal.
Working his way through the trees towards the sound, Dick approaches a small gully formed by the uneven bedrock and tries not to startle like a novice when a startled pheasant takes flight nearby. The small sounds of the hunter going about his task have ceased, and foreboding joins the terror in the pit of Dick’s stomach.
The gully is an ideal place for an ambush, and Dick keeps the dagger ready as he makes his way forward, careful of where he puts his feet.
A wolf cries up ahead and he freezes. He doesn’t think it’s Bruce, he knows his howl too well, but he can’t risk it and draws in a breath to shout and scare him away.
Snick, snick, snap –
Something triggers the traps behind him, the sound forcing Dick and any sensible woodland creature onward and away, but that’s exactly what the hunter intends.
Snap – and a cut-off choked howl.
Dick’s world stops, along with his heart.
Movement ahead filters through the black haze that’s descended over him, and Dick lurches forward, bereft of grace. The hunter is crouched over the wolf lying dead in his trap, knife out, and Dick doesn’t think before ploughing straight into him, the hatred in his chest flaring to frightening proportions.
They go over into a tumble of limbs and curses, the wolf’s corpse beneath them, and Dick lashes out blindly, intent only on hurting, on inflicting as much pain as possible as if it’ll make up some way for the anguish inside him.
The hunter fights back and manages to throw Dick off him in only a few moments. He rolls away and collects himself, ready to spring, but then another wolf snarls nearby, deep and loud and daunting, and Dick knows that sound –
“Bruce,” he breathes, abject relief soothing the maelstrom inside him like water over burned and blistered skin.
“The black wolf,” the hunter murmurs at the same moment as their eyes alight on the proud beast standing before them, black as night and twice as menacing.
No. Dick kicks out and catches the hunter a glancing blow across the shoulder. It’s uncoordinated but enough to topple his balance from where he’s crouching, and with a short curse the man tips over – onto a spike of the trap he had just prised from around the unfortunate wolf’s throat. His scream rips through the night and Dick jerks back, horrified, as the man clutches at his punctured eye, blood streaming down his face.
Nausea bubbles up inside him and Dick is only barely aware of Jason appearing from the mist and drawing him away. He catches a glimpse of Bruce disappearing back into the forest, and it’s enough to know he’s alright, he’s alive.
“Sorry,” he thinks he mutters as Jason leads him back to the barn.
“It’s okay,” Jason replies, and gathers their things. Neither can face the thought of staying and waiting for the nightmares to find them.
* * *
Jason awakes next to fire, which is a surprise, near a plate of fruit and break and meat in front of him, which is even more shocking, and with Bruce’s stern face hovering at the edge of his vision, which is the only thing convincing him he’s not dreaming.
“Good morning,” Bruce says, face lightening slightly with a smile, and Jason grins back before remembering the night before. He and Dick had spent the last few sodden hours of night trudging down the road out of the village, not speaking, and trying to get as far away from the memory of the blood-soaked wolf pelts as they could.
“Morning. What a night. Ugh. What a night.” He sits up, wincing. He’s still a little damp but nothing to signify, and the fire is not only warm but has a fresh fish roasting over the top.
“Oh? What happened?” Bruce asks, brushing Tim down. Jason watches him covertly, Dick’s fear and the sound of the storm and the tang of blood still snagging at the corners of his mind.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” he answers eventually, unsure if it’s his place to tell Bruce about the hunter and his lost eye and Dick’s rage and grief. Bruce looks like he might pursue it, but then Dick’s high piping cry echoes through the cold mountain air and his attention is diverted.
Jason sighs in relief and yawns, stretching his arms up to their full extent over his head. Dick’s second cry is much closer, and Jason is wondering if he should start with the fish or the cured meat first when a heavy weight alights without ceremony on his forearm.
“Um…” He stares at the bird and then looks uneasily over at Bruce.
Bruce’s face is cold and blank; his eyes are blazing.
“I was joking about eating hawks for breakfast, you know…” Jason wriggles his arm uncertainly.
The hawk doesn’t budge, flaring out his wings to keep his balance, and Jason knows if looks could kill he’d be six feet under by now.
“So…last night.” Bruce says coldly, and Jason wants to bury his face in his hands but there’s a bird with very sharp talons in the way.
“Get off, Dick! Last night?”
“Tell me,” Bruce says, eyes locked on Dick.
“What’s to tell? We had a bit of trouble at an inn, that’s all. Let go, Dick, ouch! Do you know how sharp your talons are?”
“You took Dick to an inn?” demands Bruce.
“What? No, not really, we had to go the stables first.” Jason jiggles his arm again but it has no effect and he doesn’t really want to actually shake Dick off in case he hurts him. The hawk chirrups indignantly, wings half-spread.
“What did you do in the stables?”
“Nothing; we had to change clothes but we brushed Tim down –”
“You changed clothes?” It’s hard to miss the accusation in Bruce’s voice, and Jason glances at him to see his jaw locked and fists clenched.
“Not like that! Not together!”
“So you left him alone in a strange place?”
“So you were together.”
“No, no, God, just take him, take him!” Jason waves his arm and gestures at Bruce, who finally approaches and coaxes Dick onto his wrist, black leather gauntlet already in place. The bird chirps and flaps but settles down soon enough, wings furled and bright eyes observing Bruce.
Jason backs away, surprised and pleased and guilty and nervous all at once. The fish suddenly doesn’t seem like a good idea on top of the morning’s happenings.
“Look, he’s a good man, and I…enjoyed spending time with him last night as a human. But truthfully…all he did last night was think and talk of you.”
Glancing over, Jason can see the brittle aggression drain from Bruce at the words, his face softening as he looks at Dick. “I…every moment you spend with him…I envy.” The uncharacteristically bare emotion in Bruce’s voice makes Jason a little uncomfortable and he shuffles where he stands as Bruce puts Dick down on a nearby branch and then approaches Jason with a plate of his own. “Eat.”
He does so, conscious of Bruce’s assessing eyes on him the whole time. Toying with the last of the bread, Jason waits for the questions.
“Was he well, last night? Had his shoulder healed?”
Jason almost sighs in relief at the easy question, but that would be too incriminating. “Yes, it seems fine. He wanted to spar, and I think it was a little stiff, but there wasn’t any bleeding.”
“Good,” Bruce says, and Jason wonders if that strap really needs to be stitched or if the fearsome knight captain is actually fidgeting. “How was he otherwise?”
Since the man has spent each night of the last two years as a wolf and every day on the run, Jason forgives him his poor conversational skills. Besides, if he spins this right, tugging on Bruce’s heartstrings, he just might be able to hitch Bruce up to Alfred’s carriage of thought. “Fine. He was upset at first, when he talked about the first days you spent together and the curse it would lead to, but when he remembered how happy you were, Dick’s eyes…they lit up, like sparks.”
“Like blue fire,” Bruce murmurs, his own eyes going soft and unseeing as he stares at the memories.
“He loves you more than life, Bruce. He’s had to.”
Bruce’s fingers still on the strap and his shoulders sag. A moment later he says softly, “Did you know wolves and hawks mate for life? The Bishop didn’t even leave us that. He calls himself a raptor, thinks he has a claim on another bird, but he has no concept of flight or of the freedom of the skies. He doesn’t understand anything about Dick.”
Jason’s stomach clenches with the surge of violence that’s becoming familiar every time a further iniquity on the part of the Bishop is mentioned. He doesn’t know Bruce, not really, not when they’ve only been travelling together for a few days and Bruce has spent years becoming accustomed to being alone, and he can’t really say if Bruce has ever been vulnerable in front of him, but…this moment seems close enough. Jason has to get him to see sense, he has to. For Bruce’s sake, for Dick’s sake, and for his own now that he’s been caught up in this mess.
He wonders at it, this devotion between Bruce and Dick. In truth, Jason can’t comprehend it. His life has had nothing of its ilk. His mother died when he was born and he has no father to speak of – he never even knew the man’s name. Given to an orphanage, he was stealing by the time he was four and on the streets when he was seven. The only thing he really knows in his life, all nineteen years of it, is casual cruelty. There have been occasional kindnesses and periods of excitement conjured by a fight, but mostly it’s been the mundane drudge of trying to stay alive till the next day, staving off the hunger in his belly and hoping his world doesn’t get worse. It might not be grand, but he’s survived this long. It’s ordinary and it’s his – and he has seen some wonderful things in his magpie-like quest for expensive, shiny things.
He has no concept, though, of the magic that has suddenly woven its way through his world. Truthfully, in his heart of hearts, Jason doesn’t know if he’s frightened by what’s ahead, or excited by the prospect of something more, something different.
The hawk takes flight and Jason watches him skim across the lake beside their campsite. Dick has seen a part of the world Jason never will, loved and lost and found and lost again, and he can’t quite understand how Dick keeps on loving anyway, a selfless eternal adoration that Bruce returns, endless and passionate and, for now, as hopeless as the quest of the sun to touch the stars.
The mood is sombre after that.
* * *
Alfred arrives as they’re breaking camp, looking impossibly neat. He’s been driving a donkey cart for the past two days, and yet his tabard is as crisply folded as it was in the manor. “On your way to greet the Bishop in Aquila?”
“I thought you were determined to collect cobwebs in the manor,” Bruce replies with a noticeable lack of warmth.
“Let me remind you, Master Bruce, that you were the one to declaim the dangers of life on the road,” Alfred says primly, and Bruce actually rolls his eyes as he swings himself up into Tim’s saddle, Dick on his wrist as always. “For heavens’ sake, Bruce, will you not listen? The day after tomorrow, you may face His Grace with Dick by your side, and put an end to this.”
“I will be in Aquila tomorrow, and one way or another, there will be an end,” Bruce says curtly, and Alfred lifts his face to the sky in vexation.
Jason shrugs and jumps into the breach. “One day won’t make a difference, you know.”
“You too? I warned you, Jason –”
Alfred interrupts in his turn. “Honestly, Master Bruce, are you so egotistical that you believe since you have not found a remedy, none exists?”
“Perhaps I am realistic,” Bruce retorts, mouth drawn into the thin line Jason is already recognising as a sign he is struggling to rein in his temper.
“Or maybe you have given up. Maybe you believe you deserve this curse; perhaps you think that you were never meant to be happy after your parents’ deaths and this is your atonement for dreaming otherwise. Shame on you.” Alfred’s voice is as sharp and lashing as a whip, and Jason startles, staring at the seneschal with new eyes. “Shame on you not only for thinking that of yourself, but for disregarding Master Dick’s happiness too. Do not be selfish, Bruce. Listen to me – if not for your sake, then for his. You told me once there were not enough words nor stars in the sky to express your love for him. Prove it.”
Alfred is flushed at the end of his tirade; Bruce very pale.
“Do not speak of things you do not understand. Do not slow me down.” With that scathing near-whisper, Bruce wrenches Tim around and spurs him forward, leaving them both behind.
“Well, that wasn’t actually a ‘no,’” Jason says thoughtfully, and Alfred pats his shoulder.
“Thank you for trying, Master Jason. We had better follow and see what we can do to stop him doing something stupid – though God only knows whether or not he deserves it.”
They manage to keep Tim in view for the rest of the day, trundling along behind him along the mountain paths. If Bruce knows they’re following he doesn’t give any indication of it, but he doesn’t increase Tim’s speed: it’s the only tacit acceptance they’ll get. Finally the sky goes from yellow to pink to purple and deep blue, and when the wolf’s cry echoes over the land Jason wraps himself in another jacket and goes to find Dick.
He’s rummaging through Tim’s saddlebags when Jason finds him, muttering something about his dagger, but he spins round at the first crack of a twig under Jason’s boots.
“There you are, little Redbird,” Dick says, grinning briefly in welcome before going back to his search. “Did I thank you for last night?”
“Don’t mention it,” Jason says, approaching him. “But this may be our last evening together.” This brings Dick’s head up quickly and he turns to stare at Jason. “I didn’t want to tell you until I believed it.”
“We have a way to break the curse.”
Dick goes very still.
“We’ve come up with a plan.”
“‘We’ being you and Bruce?” Dick asks after a moment. Jason shakes his head, and Alfred materialises by his shoulder. Dick raises his brows and stares at them, head tilted, mouth thin, before dropping his shoulders in acquiescence.
The waxing moon is high in the sky, casting an almost daylight glow across the snow, as they get to work. Alfred’s wagon is stocked with almost everything they could need but it only has one shovel, so Jason shrugs and retrieves Bruce’s longsword. Dick chokes on the water he’s drinking when he sees Jason unconcernedly begin to shift dirt using the ancestral prize, and Alfred has to pat him on the back to get him to breathe again. They each take turns at digging – “Stop poking me in the liver!” “Stop putting your liver near my elbow!” “Boys, must you keep showering me in dirt?” – over the next few hours until Dick, taking a moment to rest his wounded shoulder, goes still as he stares off into the night.
A second later, Bruce’s mournful, eerie howl drifts over the snow towards them. “He’s coming,” Alfred murmurs, and Jason offers his shoulder so the seneschal can boost himself out of the wolf-sized pit they’re spent hours digging before scrambling out himself.
“Come on, lovebird, let’s cover the trap.”
Dick scowls at him for that but hurries over to help Jason drag the fir branches they’d sawn off earlier over the mouth of the pit. With that complete, Jason and Alfred hurry over to hide behind the wagon, and Dick stays alone on the snowy slopes, watching for his lover. When the crunch of snow under paws reaches their ears, however, it’s coming from the wrong side.
“He’s coming over the ice!” Jason hisses, and Dick starts running. “Dick, wait!”
Too late – with a startled yelp, the black wolf falls through.
As soon as Dick gets close enough to try and help, the surface cracks under him too and he stumbles back, cursing. “Jason, get some rope!”
Jason swears and ties a length of twine to the longsword as Dick drops to his belly and begins to crawl forward. Alfred gathers blankets and throws kindling onto the fire, face pinched with worry, and then ventures as close to the edge of the ice as he can. Bruce is still yelping as he struggles to get clear of the freezing water, and now Jason can really understand what Alfred meant, back at the manor – there’s nothing human about the wolf now, lost as he is to senseless animal panic. He could do any of them serious harm. Regardless, Dick is still crawling closer, calling for Jason to hurry in between trying to soothe the wolf.
Mimicking Dick, Jason flings himself onto his stomach and drags the sword along as he approaches the thrashing animal, the ice creaking and groaning threateningly under his weight. Dick has finally got close enough to wrap his arms around Bruce’s neck, to grab his scruff and try to haul him out of danger, but the angle is wrong and the wolf too heavy. Dick curses again, voice shaking, and yells for Jason.
“I’m coming, hold on!”
“Quickly, I can’t pull him up, he’s sinking!”
Stabbing the longsword through the ice, Jason crawls around it with the rope and makes his way to Dick’s side. The wolf is scrabbling at the edge of the ice, snarling and snapping, and they don’t have enough leverage on the slippery surface to pull him up. Dick curls around Bruce as best he can from the side to try and lift his back legs but he’s leaning out without support from the waist up, arms dipping into the freezing water and left shoulder still impeding his movements.
“Hurry, or we’ll lose him!” Alfred calls from where he’s crawled over to the longsword, hands ready on the rope.
Jason looks at the panicking wolf, at Dick’s frantic face, and curses to himself. This is going to be unpleasant.
“Jason, what are you doing?” Dick shouts when he swings himself into the water beside Bruce.
The cold is indescribable, all-encompassing, endless, and if he didn’t have a full-grown wolf thrashing next to him Jason might forget what on earth he’s doing here as his brain just seems to – blank. But there is a struggling wolf and a terrified friend on the ice, and he recollects enough of himself to remember what to do.
“Just p-p-pull!” Jason stutters as he grabs Bruce’s hips and tries to push the wolf up over the shelf of ice. The wolf snarls at the sudden contact and tries to lunge at them, but slips and falls into the water once more. Dick yells and catches his ruff again, calling for him, for Jason, coaxing them back towards him in a voice made ragged by fear.
Jason swears and hauls Bruce over towards Dick, breath coming shorter the longer he’s in the water, then curses again as blunt claws rake and slice over his skin. Lines of fire bloom among the overwhelming freeze, but they’re moving him, they’re pushing him –
A few more breathless seconds see them hoisting the yelping wolf clear of the water and onto the solid ice with Alfred’s constant encouragement ringing in their ears.
“I’ve got you,” Dick pants, throwing his arms around the sodden, sullen wolf and twining his fingers into soaking wet fur as he presses desperate kisses to an icy muzzle. “You’re alright, my darling, you’re safe, you’re here…Thank you, Jason, thank you, you saved him! Alfred, help Jason!”
Thanks for remembering, Jason wants to say, but his brain is so cold and his lungs feel like they’re so full of ice he can’t even produce a word.
“One hand at a time now, young master, that’s it; just grab the rope and you’ll be out in a second…”
Hand over shaking, blue-tinged, numb hand, Jason crawls – is pulled – out of the water and onto the snow beside Dick. Chests heaving, lungs burning, they look dazedly at each other as Dick drops a hand onto Jason’s shoulder and grips tight.
“We have to live as human beings,” he says weakly, other hand still buried in his lover’s fur. “Not as animals. Alfred…our lives are in your hands.”
* * *
Time seems to have followed the ice and frozen, seems to have leapt ahead and left them behind, and Dick, lying curled up in blankets and the sharp spice of pine needles, can’t believe they didn’t spend hours by the hole in the ice. It was only a few minutes but it’s left them all shaken, Jason most of all. Alfred hurried him away to the fire as soon as he could stand, and proceeded to strip him bare and bury him under blankets. If Dick lifts his head over the edge of the wolf pit he can see the pile of wool that is Jason, shaking and shivering worse than a leaf in a storm with a mug of Alfred’s special hot spicy wine in his hand.
Warmth spreads through Dick’s veins, separate from the heat of the wine in his belly, as he thinks of Jason’s selflessness. Bruce is asleep beside him, so much like it used to be that it hurts to look over a see a wolf where once there was a man, and he’s still alive thanks to the bravery of their little gutter Redbird. Stroking a hand over the coarse fur, dry after a thorough towelling, Dick thinks over Alfred’s meagre plan, the scant knowledge he has accumulated the past two years that is all they have to rely on. As for talking Bruce around to it…Jason assured him he would be able to do it without a hitch. Guilt and atonement have always been two of Bruce’s most defining character traits.
Dawn is not too distant – a few more minutes, if he had to guess; the sky has gone hazy pink to the east over the mountains – and Dick allows himself a moment just to be. He may not be beside Bruce they way he desperately wishes he was, but they are still alive, still together, after two impossible years, and now they have friends, a plan – now they have hope. Hope as bright and delicate as the rising sun.
He can see the gold creeping down the mountains, across the snowfields, but the point of this pit is to give them just those few extra moments in the shadow: long enough for Bruce to shed his fur before Dick has to don his feathers. Birds begin to sing and somewhere in the distance Tim stamps a hoof, but Dick has eyes only for the creature beside him. Soon, soon…it has been so long since they were in the same place at the same time, so long since he caught even a split-second glimpse of his lover’s face…
A stripe of gold falls across the knuckles combing through Bruce’s fur.
His heart clenches inside his chest, a joyful ache, an aching joy, and Dick holds himself breathlessly still, not daring to even blink.
Another stripe across dark fur, a third, a bright glint off the sword jammed into the heap of earth, a dazzling shimmer as a clump of ice among the pine needles reflects the sun –
Dick can feel the warmth now, slowly pooling across his back and into the hollow like the tiny pot of rich honey they had bought in the market and spent the afternoon licking off each other’s skin, and with it comes the faint prickling that heralds the approach of feathers.
Just a little bit longer, he prays, though to whom he doesn’t know. No one has answered these past two years, but for just another second so he can look at the man he loves Dick would beg anyone.
Fur starts to fade in the sunlight, warm creamy skin underneath, and Dick’s hands are trembling, his breathing stuttering. A blink, eyes watering, sees the wolf’s features disappear entirely, and with a sob wrenched from his throat Dick presses a hand over his mouth as he sees Bruce lying beside him, feels the warmth of his sturdy, muscled body at long last pressed against his own.
The choked noise startles Bruce awake and he turns his head. The movement is abrupt, layered with the remains of a wolf’s instinct, but the wondrous look on his face when he sees Dick…that is wholly human.
Tears are swimming in Dick’s eyes as he meets Bruce’s incredulous, awed gaze, and he smiles tremulously as he reaches out a hand. Adoration paints its way across Bruce’s face as his quick mind shakes off the last of the animal, and he stretches out too. The sunlight is bright and hot and ever-warning, but Dick doesn’t have a thought to spare for it as finally, finally, their fingertips meet across the space between them.
His heart is so full it hurts; it feels like it’s too big for his chest with the happiness a simple brush of Bruce’s skin grants him –
It is too big, his chest is shrinking, fingers retreating, skin prickling, open sky calling –
* * *
Bruce lunges forward, despair following so swiftly on the heels of elation it feels like the ground has been cut from beneath him, but it’s too late. The hawk shrieks his shrill cry over the snowfields and takes flight.
A yell that is too much a howl rips itself from Bruce’s throat and he slumps down onto the snow.
* * *
“Dick’s gone, and Bruce is naked and pining in the pit,” Jason reports, tearing into the bread Alfred holds out.
“Do you think it was successful?” the seneschal asks, gathering up Bruce’s clothes.
Jason nods, a lump in his throat. “We’ll just have to play up last night as best we can.”
“Indeed. If you would, Master Jason, put the pot back on the fire. I shall bring Master Bruce his proper attire.”
He’s gotten through two eggs and a bowl of stodge Alfred calls a bran mash when Bruce approaches, cloak dark against the snow and expression matching.
“Where’s my father’s sword?” he asks with no pleasant preliminaries.
“Good morning to you, too,” Jason mutters, and then looks down into his mug. “It’s gone. It fell through the ice last night.”
“A river a few miles back. The water flowed swiftly under the ice; we couldn’t find it.”
“Damn you,” Bruce snaps, advancing like a thundercloud. “That was the last connection to my family’s honour I had left.”
“There is no honour is this quest!” Jason retorts. “The jewel you wanted is just a symbol of your meaningless death at the hands of a man who already took everything else from you.”
Bruce whirls away and stalks over to a bare rock overlooking the valley. Jason and Alfred exchange a brief glance before the seneschal says,
“The boy I knew solved puzzle-boxes before he was ten, and was determined to do each alone until he finally learnt that sometimes asking for help is the solution. There is a chance for life, Bruce.”
“New life with Dick,” Jason adds, standing and shedding the heavy coat. “He was so upset about losing the sword, it seemed like he was afraid you loved it and what it represented more than you loved him!”
“Don’t you dare –” Bruce snarls, storming towards him and seizing Jason by the upper arms.
“Listen to him, for heaven’s sake,” Alfred beseeches as Bruce shakes Jason furiously.
“Oh, I do dare,” Jason snaps. Bruce isn’t the only one with a temper. “Go kill yourself on some pointless quest, breaking the oath you swore you wouldn’t; go ahead and kill Dick too, be merciful and end it before he has to find out the Bishop slaughtered you like the animal you are –”
Bruce growls deep in his chest and throws Jason away from himself, a good few feet across the snow. He lands with a jolt and a hiss, trying to curl away from the stinging pain, and Bruce goes still.
“What is that,” he demands of Alfred, pointing to the gouges in Jason’s skin.
“It occurred last night, Master Bruce,” Alfred says coldly, “when he saved your life. Ice doesn’t just break under swords, you know.”
Jason watches Bruce put the pieces together, and an odd combination of guilt and satisfaction wars in his stomach as the rage drains from Bruce’s face, leaving him weary and worn.
“Forgive me,” he says quietly, and extends a hand to help Jason to his feet. Jason shrugs, and then squeaks in shock as Bruce tugs him into an awkward, unpractised hug. “It’s obvious you two simpletons have no idea how to cage a wolf.”
* * *
The walls of Aquila, while not as majestic as some of the Wayne holdings, are nevertheless impressive pieces of architecture. Alfred reins in Ace the donkey just before they turn the corner to approach the main gate and clears his throat.
Master Jason sighs heavily and slips out of the wagon near where he believes the underwater canal opens into the moat. They run over the plan once more, and then he capers off into the darkness.
“He’ll be alright,” Master Dick whispers from deep within the cowl of Master Bruce’s cloak. “Won’t he?”
“I am sure he will,” Alfred says comfortingly, and clicks his tongue to Ace. “He excels in getting out of tight spots, does our young Master Todd.”
“I can’t believe he has remained with us this far,” Master Dick says, wrapping his arms around himself on the seat beside Alfred. “I know Bruce can be intimidating, but surely he didn’t threaten Jason into compliance?”
Alfred chuckles. “I don’t believe one can threaten Master Jason into anything he does not wish to do.”
“That’s true,” Master Dick muses. “I just hope nothing more happens to him in our name.”
“Everything will be alright, Master Dick,” Alfred says quietly as a squadron of guards clatter past them.
An hour after sunset means the guards are busy on their first patrols of the night, and it takes some time for the wagon to trundle forward to the head of the queue of vehicles desiring entry. Tim is tethered uneasily alongside the covered carriage, but fortunately stolid Ace shows no similar signs of being displeased by the bustle around him. They wait at the first gate, are let in, led across to the second, and finally halted for inspection near the inner courtyard – a vastly inefficient system, if he were asked for his opinion.
“Hold,” a guard says, bored. “What do you carry?”
“Good evening, sir,” Alfred replies calmly. Just because he is wearing the old, tattered clothes of a farm foreman does not mean one must surrender all manners. “I bring a gift for His Grace the Bishop on behalf of my nephew, and the people of his estate.”
The guard circles the wagon and pulls back the canvas – leaping back when he is confronted by Master Bruce snarling his displeasure at the confined quarters. “It will make a fine pelt, do you not think?”
“I’ve never had the pleasure of killing a wolf before,” the guard remarks, unsheathing his sword. Master Dick tenses beside him.
“Oh, how strange,” Alfred remarks with careful nonchalance. “That’s exactly what the Bishop said.” The guard stills, uncertainty in his posture. “I’m sure he will understand when you tell him how you deprived him of that pleasure; he is, after all, a forgiving man of God.”
The guard scowls and steps away. “Move on, get it out of the way.”
“I can see you will go far in your profession,” Alfred tells him, and shakes the reins. Master Dick slumps in relief beside him as Ace’s hooves ring on the inner courtyard cobbles. They find the tavern in the southern quarter of the city they had agreed on, and pay the barman enough to shut his mouth and blinker his eyes; when morning comes, no one remarks upon the silence of the once-snarling cargo, the exchange of one tense man dressed in black for another, and the addition of a hawk to the group.
And they wait.
“Soon now,” Alfred says, slipping back into the stables where Bruce is offering the hawk some cuts of meat. “Once the clouds break, you will see.”
“It’s day,” Bruce replies dourly, coaxing Dick onto his wrist and caressing his soft feathered head. “Like it was yesterday. Like it will be tomorrow.”
Alfred can only wish Master Bruce had not grown tall enough to make clipping him around the head inconvenient.
* * *
Jason breaks the surface of the scummy water with a gasp, shaking trails of wet hair from his eyes.
“Well, this is familiar,” he mutters, swimming over to the iron rungs set into the stone and beginning to climb.
The soft sounds of chanting grow louder the higher Jason climbs, and the smoky scent of incense gradually grows strong enough to compete with the foetid smell of the sewer canals. He fights the urge to sneeze as he hauls himself onwards and upwards.
Reaching a metal grate set into the floor above him, Jason cranes his neck and catches sight of the stained glass window high in the wall opposite. Perfect – his recollection of the canals and Alfred’s map of the Aquila cathedral have put him right where he needs to be. Wedging himself into the corner of the tunnel, Jason digs out the knife Alfred gave him from his pocket and begins to work at the pegs keeping the grate in place.
One slips free a minute later and falls down into the moat below; the second takes more time but eventually yields and Jason fits his fingers carefully through the bars. With a grunt and a heave, the grate lifts – at the same time as the great door to the cathedral swings open to admit the Bishop’s procession. Swearing, Jason releases the grate and clambers one rung down, out of sight. Of course, as soon as he does that, one of the monks decides to come to a halt right on top of the grate.
Jason bares his teeth and looks around for leverage. The glint of the knife in his hand gives him an idea, and with no little pleasure, Jason stabs upward into the thin leather of the man’s shoe.
The first poke has the man wriggle his foot and set it down again; the second, more forceful one, has the monk stamp angrily on the grate. Losing patience, Jason drives the point of the knife up into the ball of the foot.
The monk must leap nearly a foot into the air, and Jason hurriedly crams himself into the corner as the man whispers to his neighbour, “Rats!” before stabbing down in return with his staff and moving off.
“Mincing, soft-footed fool,” Jason chuckles, lifting the grate and slipping out. Hiding his knife, he snatches up a white acolyte’s robe and begins to make his careful way along the wall of the cathedral to the locked door, waiting for the point in the service Alfred had told him to mark.
* * *
Pacing back and forth in the stables, Bruce eventually slips a hood over Dick’s head to avoid the uncomprehending look in the eyes of this other form of his lover. “I cannot wait any longer,” he says, trying to steel his soul for what must be done.
If there was another way – but there isn’t, years of study has turned over nothing, and all of Alfred’s vague day-without-a-night talk is as insubstantial as his hope. The seneschal is his oldest friend, but Alfred has no knowledge of what it is to be hunted, to be afraid, to be alone and together and unable to even ask for Dick’s opinion outside of the notes left to one another as the sun passed horizon, before they had run out of ink and parchment.
Carcassonne has no information for us, Dick; we must move on. Choose a direction, choose a path, and I will follow as always. See if you can find another way to reach this J. Constantine – they say he is well-versed in the uncanny and might have something, anything, for us. The villagers were cautious but hospitable, and Tim had a stone in one shoe. Travel safely. The moon might be your sun, but always I dream of you.
The thought of what he must do turns his stomach. After what happened to his parents – no, even before that, when he and his father had passed through a town and his father had not been quick enough to shield his eyes from the execution and its aftermath taking place in the centre square – he has sworn never to kill, never to intentionally take another person’s life and leave their family to grieve in their absence. To kill runs contrary to every moral code he has ever upheld as Bruce Wayne, as Captain of the Guard, as a man who searched for justice, delivered retribution and offered mercy. But now…is there any other way?
Alfred says not. Alfred says to kill the Bishop would be to make the curse permanent.
The literature, what little he has been able to source, says otherwise. A sorcerer’s curse breaks upon his death, that is what the stories say, but never without a price. If the price is Bruce’s own morals, is it worth it? Is Dick worth it? Is life, his own life, worth the taking of another? Does life and pure love justify the death of someone evil? Who is he, to place value upon life and morals? Is mercy perhaps the only way to combat a curse of darkness? But if he does let the Bishop live, how will they ever be safe again?
Bruce paces in circles that mimic his thoughts, anticipation and dread surging through his veins.
“Mass will be over soon; if Jason has done his job I will be able to enter the cathedral and put an end to this.”
“Bruce, no! This chance will never come again,” Alfred tries to catch his arm and Bruce lets him.
“The service ends with bells in the cathedral,” he says. “If you hear those, you will know I have failed.”
Alfred loosens his grip, a bereft expression deepening the lines on his face. “But Dick…”
Bruce looks down at the hawk, love welling in his heart as it always does when he thinks of his lover. No matter the shape Dick takes, Bruce will always adore him.
This time, however, the emotion is tinged with fear. Even hunted through the days and nights in the months with the Bishop on their tails, just looking at Dick was enough to reassure Bruce that everything would be alright, that love and life with this man was worth any trouble. Now, here in the viper’s nest, he is afraid like he never was on the run.
“Look after him,” Bruce rasps, and his voice breaks. “Tell him I – tell him what happened and then take him far, far away from Aquila. Make sure he never comes back. After that…he – his life is his own; he will not want it, cursed as we are, but he must decide. We made our choices, Alfred. Goodbye, old friend. Live well.”
To live is to choose, and they chose to love. Bruce will never regret that.
* * *
Jason sidles over to the door, nerves mounting. The chants are becoming more frequent, the Bishop’s voice is grating on his ears, and the sun is climbing higher into the sky. Surely they have to move soon.
Finally, the guards step away from the doors, called to join the next absolution the Bishop bestows, and Jason takes the chance. His knife is sturdy and his fingers quick; he has the lock picked in under two minutes. The next problem is getting the bars raised before anyone notices, and Jason does not like his chances.
Apparently, a grizzled guard doesn’t either. Jason looks over his shoulder in time to see the man approach through the crowd, sword raised, smirk on his face.
Throwing caution to the wind, Jason seizes a bar and heaves. He manages to move one side out of its bracket, but the wood is old and heavy, and the space in between his shoulder blades is prickling in anticipation of a sword.
“Come on, come on,” he hisses, and heaves again. The next bar moves, catches his finger, and pops out; swearing, one stinging finger in his mouth, Jason slides back the two bolts, and tries to tug the door open. The guard is getting closer, closer – he’s close enough Jason swears he can feel his breath –
The door crashes open under the force of Tim’s hooves, and Jason rolls clear. Well, if he wanted to make an entrance, Bruce has certainly succeeded. The whole cathedral goes silent, staring at him, at the imposing man dressed in black armour bestride a huge black warhorse with a gleaming shortsword in his hand. He wears no helmet, daring anyone to meet his blazing eyes and dismiss him.
Jason wedges himself with happy forethought into a nearby corner.
The Bishop is cold and silent as Tim trots up the centre of the cathedral, and Jason spares a moment to pity him before remembering what he’s done and hoping he burns in hell. Bruce reaches the edge of the dais and sweeps his cloak aside in preparation to dismount, but then comes the ringing sound of another set of hooves on cobbles.
“Wayne!” Talon bellows, urging his horse through the doors of the cathedral. He flicks his visor down, raises his sword, and charges.
Bruce wheels Tim around to meet him in the middle with a deafening clang of metal on metal. Neither are wounded in the first skirmish, and Jason starts bobbing on his toes in anticipation. On the second pass, Bruce catches Talon off-balance but doesn’t unseat him from the saddle, and draws Tim in before the grey gelding can fully respond to his rider’s command. Closing with the usurping captain in a rattle of sword on sword, Bruce continues circling Tim around until the grey slips on the cobbles and founders.
Bruce may be honourable but he’s a street fighter at heart, Jason thinks proudly, watching Bruce hound Talon while the captain tries to regain his seat. He’s not a courtly buffoon. Ah shit, I just might be!
Like a blinding bolt from the blue, Jason remembers the last piece of their plan, and dashes from the cathedral. Legs flying, heart racing, eager to watch the rest of the fight, Jason reaches the stables Alfred told him they’d hire and dives under the wagon. There, nestled by the axle, is Bruce’s cherished longsword, kept for just the right moment.
He gets back to the cathedral, red-faced and breathless, just in time to see Bruce finally knock Talon from the saddle as the gathered monks bleat in fear like sheep. A few of them have fled, proving they at least have brains in their heads.
“You’ll never return,” Talon shouts, and flings his helmet at Bruce rather like a petulant child. Bruce ducks easily and the helmet shatters the stained glass window above, revealing the sun sailing through the clouds. Ignoring the glass and the gasps of shock, Bruce swipes Talon’s sword from his hand, but when he tries to get close enough to deliver a brutal kick Talon lunges forward and pulls Bruce from Tim’s back.
Landing heavily, Bruce rolls and comes up with a swift and sudden move Talon can’t block. The sound of Bruce’s fist meeting Talon’s jaw is solid and extremely satisfying, and Talon collapses, unconscious.
Jason cheers – he can’t help it.
Several monks have the sense to grab the horses’ reins and draw them away, and Jason hurries over to take charge of Tim. Standing by the door, he watches as Bruce stalks up the cleared centre, counting the guards who jump out into the space like fish from a stream, swords raised.
Bruce never pauses in his determined approach, knocking back the first, the second, the third and fourth.
Jason punches the air as a fifth one is tripped and sent headfirst into a column, and then winces when Bruce is finally caught on the steps to the Bishop’s dais by a scrappy young guard launching himself at Bruce’s legs. They tumble down, but it reminds Jason of sparing with Dick on the floor, wrestling like puppies – Bruce disarms and banishes the young guard in only a few moves.
Then the sun begins to dim.
Sprawled upon the steps, Bruce stares upward, awe sweeping across his stern face. Jason darts outside, curiously eating him alive. There in the sky is the dark sphere of the moon, and it…Jason gapes, turning away to wince as his eyes water. He risks staring again, just to be sure. It…seems to be crossing the sun’s path! Already a small slice of the sun is dulled by the moon.
He hares back inside, and knows he and Bruce are thinking the same thing – a day without a night, and a night without a day.
* * *
Standing by the window in their shabby tavern room, Alfred lets himself sigh in relief. The information, more story and myth than fact – something Bruce was unable to accept – had come to him through the daughter of an old friend whose grandfather had known a dying man who had served a captain many years ago in the neighbouring country’s army. The man had sworn he had been in Jerusalem during the Crusades when there had been a divine celestial moment in the sky, when part of the sun had been blotted out by the fist of God himself in shame for the atrocities and the sky went dark. Other things had supposedly happened, like the water turning red and women birthing snakes in the street, but what had caught Alfred’s attention was the man’s recollection of a cursed object that hung in a temple fracturing in half.
It had taken time and patience to piece together the story and plot the celestial movements, but he has succeeded. It’s time.
“Soon you can go to him,” Alfred murmurs to the hawk perched on his wrist. “Soon, Master Dick, you will be with him; it is nearly time to end this.”
* * *
The Bishop evidently thinks the phenomenon is something worth worrying about: he actually shows some expression on his sour face and stalks around the pulpit, topped with a ridiculous wrought iron candelabra, to stare down at Bruce.
Bruce ignores him. Rising to his feet, an expression of fearful hope on his face, Bruce starts towards the door – only to be halted by Talon, newly recovered and twice as angry. Bruce simply drops a shoulder and rams into him, forcing him back towards the door. If Jason had any idea where Alfred and Dick were, he’d fetch them in Bruce’s place, but he doesn’t. The only thing he can do is conceal the sword until the crucial moment and hope Bruce’s pride and determination do the rest.
First, though, he has to defeat Talon, and Jason winces as clash after clash reverberates around the cathedral. Talon is more heavily armoured, Bruce is lighter; Talon is still disorientated but Bruce is impatient. They weave through the columns, trying to get the upper hand, and Jason is just about to yell something uncomplimentary at the slow pace when Bruce suddenly turns to stare up into the balcony. Jason cranes his neck and sees a guard reach for one of the bell ropes.
With a swift flick of a knife, the guard staggers back as the hilt strikes his shoulder. Jason stares at Bruce, frowning. Why is he so afraid of the bells ringing?
Whatever the reason, it spurs Bruce on and he attacks Talon with renewed vigour. Talon loses ground after each parry, but just as Bruce manages to catch Talon’s blade and force him back, the large cathedral bell begins to toll.
“No!” Bruce shouts, turning away, stretching out a hand – for what, Jason doesn’t know; why Bruce is suddenly pale and bereft? Anguish hollows his eyes as the sun dims even further, and Jason feels foreboding flicker up his spine. At this angle he can see the sun through the shattered window – or what’s left of it. The moon covers it almost entirely. Dick has to appear now, and shake Bruce out of this strange abstraction. Where is he? Where is Alfred?
Talon has pulled himself up from Bruce’s shove, and clearly finds Bruce’s unexplained grief amusing. He laughs and lunges forward. Bruce parries, but he’s off his stride – Talon forces him back, gains ground, succeeds in knocking Bruce’s sword from his hand and trips him onto the cobbles.
It’s now or never, and no one’s ever said Jason’s timing was anything less than good. Pulling the longsword out from under his robe, he scurries over to a column near to where Bruce is brawling with Talon, swords forgotten, and tosses it with a clang onto the floor beside him.
Talon tries to knee Bruce in the face but Bruce catches it and retaliates with a swift punch to the stomach; when Talon doubles over, Bruce reaches out for the nearest sword and clubs the heavy hilt across his opponent’s temple. Talon crumples without a word.
Bruce stays where he is on the flagstones for a moment, catching his breath, and then looks at the sword in his hand. Jason can see the moment it registers, and waves cheerfully when Bruce looks around for him.
With an unsmiling nod, Bruce gets up and makes his way toward the dais, sweaty, bleeding, and utterly ruthless. The Bishop is still standing there, so smug in his own superiority he hasn’t even tried to flee, but now, much to Jason’s savage glee, he looks discomfited.
One last guard by the Bishop’s side tries to charge toward Bruce, who meets the swipe so easily he could be brushing away a fly. The guard goes toppling down the stairs and Bruce pushes a heavy candelabra after him for good measure.
Then, he turns his all his fierce attention upon the Bishop.
Circling him like the wolf whose skin he borrows, Bruce’s sword is at the ready even if Jason can still see the turmoil in his face.
“But kill me, Wayne,” Raptor purrs when Bruce stops in front of him, “and the curse will go on forever.” He shakes his head chidingly. “You must think of Dick.”
A shudder runs through Bruce and he lets out a shaky huff of broken laughter.
What did you do? Jason’s stomach drops.
“Dick is gone,” Bruce says softly, and the smug look fades from the Bishop’s face. “He is gone, never to return. Damn you.” He shakes his head, jaw clenched. “Damn you to hell.”
He swings his sword back over his shoulder –
Jason whirls around, almost tripping over his own feet. Bruce freezes exactly where he is for one still, silent moment, and then lowers his sword, turning slowly to face the door.
Dick is striding up the centre of the cathedral towards them, feet bare on the flagstones and eyes only for Bruce. He comes to a halt in the patch of pale light filtering in through the broken window, looking as ethereal as the first night Jason saw him. Jason gapes at him, here and human, and looks quickly over at Bruce and the Bishop. The latter is trembling, hiding his face away like the coward he is, but the former…Jason has never seen such a reverent expression on anyone’s face, let alone Bruce’s.
“Dick?” Bruce barely dares to breathe.
His lover nods, smiling tremulously. Bruce lets out a shuddering sigh, and then spins back to face the Bishop. Jason starts at the sudden movement, and has a moment of panic where he wonders if Bruce is going to give killing the Bishop a try after all, but then realises that Bruce is shouting, “Look at him!” as he seizes the Bishop’s collar and drags him forward.
The Bishop buries his face in his arms as he stumbles to his knees, and Bruce shakes him like a dog would a rat. “Look at him,” he growls again, wrenching the man’s head back by his hair.
The Bishop reluctantly does.
“Look at me,” Bruce rasps, swiftly moving around the Bishop to stand in front of him, in line with Dick and with his sword pressed to the Bishop’s chest as an incentive.
The Bishop’s gaze snaps to him, furious and fearful and pathetic. Jason thinks his lip might be bleeding with how hard he’s chewing it. The suspense is killing him.
Bruce slowly backs away to the length of his longsword, eyes never leaving the Bishop, and then further. Dick moves closer on light feet. Alfred appears by Jason’s side almost as quietly, also holding his breath.
“Now,” Bruce commands, “look at us.”
The Bishop stares at them from where he’s huddled and pathetic on the dais, empty of everything that make Bruce and Dick burn so brightly. There’s no noise, no light, nothing to mark the moment but the heavy silence all around them.
“It’s over,” Alfred says quietly, his voice breaking the quiet of the watchful, waiting cathedral. His hand finds Jason’s shoulder. “The curse is broken.”
Bruce stumbles back and turns to face Dick, breathing unevenly, and drops to his knees as though, with the weight of the past two years lifted from his shoulders, there’s nothing grounding him anymore. Dick lets out a hiccupping little laugh and stumbles into motion again with his hand outstretched. The other is by his side, holding something. Jason feels like an intruder, but nothing in the world is going to stop him watching.
Dick laughs again as he nears Bruce, and Bruce reaches out to grasp his hand and gasps like he’s drowning. Letting his fingertips drag over Bruce’s skin, Dick turns Bruce’s hand over and shows him what he’s holding.
Jason rears up on tiptoes, desperate to see. Whatever it is, it makes Dick’s rapturous face harden. He steps past Bruce with a last squeeze of his hand, and approaches the Bishop with ice in his eyes. Holding out the object before him, Dick lifts his chin in disdain and drops the leather hawk hood at his feet.
The Bishop flinches back.
Dick stares him down for another cold second, and then turns away, back to where Bruce is still kneeling. Raptor watches him go, and when he’s telling the story in years to come, Jason will point to this as the moment he saw a man snap.
Seizing his stave and uncapping the blade at the end, the Bishop surges to his feet and yowls, “Then no man shall!” as he aims the knife at Dick’s back.
“Look out!” Alfred and Jason roar in warning.
Dick spins around, hand flying to his dagger, but Bruce is quicker. Thrown overarm, the longsword embeds itself in the wobbling wooden pulpit, pinning the Bishop like a butterfly to canvas through the long robes between his chest and his arm.
“Fool!” The Bishop spits, scrabbling for his stave, “You can never stop me! I will have you, or no man –”
The huge, multi-tiered wrought iron candelabra on the pulpit tips over, unbalanced by the impact of the sword, and stoves the Bishop’s head in.
Shocked gasps echo through the cathedral as Jason blinks incredulously and rubs a hand over his eyes; Alfred presses a hand to his heart and looks away. Dick stumbles back, staring, and moves immediately to Bruce’s side where he scrunches two handfuls of cloak in his fists as Bruce lets out a sharp sigh of horrified relief.
It’s over, it’s finally over; the curse is broken without, technically speaking, blood having to be deliberately shed. Jason sags against the nearest column, feeling abruptly like he was the one with pounds of armour weighing him down. He can only imagine what Bruce feels like. Alfred wraps an arm around his shoulder, squeezing, and he does the same to the old seneschal, heart swelling at the sight of a new future spanning out before him. Jason’s never really had that before – a future, a choice, a new path to take. New friends. It’s…nice. Damn. He scrubs his hand over his eyes again, feeling Alfred pat his back.
The sun brightens fortuitously at that moment, the moon beginning to drift away again and leave the sun to its solitary rule of the sky. In the patch of light let in by the broken window, Bruce is looking up at Dick like he’s forgotten there’s anyone else in the world, let alone the room.
Dick releases his handfuls of fabric and cups Bruce’s face instead, smile breaking through once more. Bruce kisses the fingertips that dance across his lips and surges to his feet, sweeping Dick up into his arms and spinning around and around. Dick’s jubilant laughter rings out through the cathedral, bringing a grin to Jason’s own lips, and he judges this a good time to begin their retreat. Aquila might be headless without the Bishop, but the barracks are still full of guards that even Bruce can’t fight his way through.
He pulls on Alfred’s arm and guides him towards Tim, keeping an eye on the reunited pair over his shoulder. He’ll let them have one kiss, since he’s generous, or maybe two, but after that they definitely need to go. Three is possibly the limit.
After their fourth euphoric embrace Dick eventually drags Bruce over to where Tim is waiting, and it’s a wonder their cheeks haven’t broken from the joy stretching across their faces.
“You’re still here?” Bruce says, but since he can’t even muster the pretence of scowling Jason flicks him a rude hand gesture.
“Where would you be without us?”
“Where indeed,” Bruce murmurs. “Thank you. I bless the moment you both came into our lives.”
“I wish you every happiness, Master Bruce, Master Dick,” Alfred replies, beaming, “from this day forward.”
Bruce pulls Alfred into a brief, tight hug, and then does the same to Jason. Dick also drags Jason into his own rib-cracking embrace, and he gives a token protest as his hair is ruffled.
“Thank you,” Dick breathes. “The truest friend, the best brother, I could ever have.”
The heart in his throat makes it very difficult to reply to that, and Dick grins at him like he can tell. “Where – where will you go now?” Jason manages.
Dick looks at Bruce and reclaims his hand. “Wherever we want. Everywhere. Maybe nowhere, for a while. We have time, now.”
“We do,” Bruce murmurs, pressing a kiss to Dick’s temple. “We’ll find you again, Alfred, but don’t wait for us. We’ll be awhile.”
The seneschal smiles and lays his hand on Jason’s shoulder. “I shall have company, sir. Best of luck.”
“Wait, what?” Jason squawks.
“Someone has to keep you out of trouble, young Master Jason,” Alfred tuts, and leads him out of the cathedral.
The prospect of a home, a family to come back to after choosing his own adventures…he can live with that.
“Sooner or later, trouble always comes knocking,” he grins, and lifts a hand to wave as Bruce and Dick canter off down the cobbled Aquila street, the sunlit expanse of the future waiting for them.