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salute death, but only with valour

Chapter Text

Bruce doesn’t talk to anyone on the anniversary of Jason’s death. That night, he patrols without a partner. Tim, Steph and Damian come to accept this, and go instead with Dick. The world does not stop; crime blooms in Gotham like blood on muslin, spreading and spreading no matter what day. It doesn’t matter that Jason’s back, Bruce still mourns because the damage has worked itself deep, riddled their bodies and inflicted that which cannot be taken back.

For Bruce, it is the day that he lost as Batman for the first time; the only time that it really mattered. He lost his son, his partner, his reason for being who he was. Jason may be here now, but Bruce can tell that it’s a fragmented shadow of the boy he mentored, a warped vision broken by flurries of anger and fear.

The sparsely ingraved stone next to that of his parents flashes across Bruce’s mind every time he passes the tall, hunched form of his son that doesn’t acknowledge him. He spits to Bruce that the man has never been a father to him, it was decided when he left him to die, when he let the Joker walk away.

Bruce only remembers ice cream and movie nights when Jason was ill, seeing him blossom and bloom at school, the way his face lit up at the chance to patrol.

Jason remembers none of it.

Bruce knows that it is his fault.

Every ‘Jason’ called he expects the teenager with a penchant for the sharpness of cigarettes and good literature to stroll around the corner. But he looks up, and is met with eyes that look like they’ve been to Hell and never come back. The light, the childish gleam is long gone. It’s as if it were never there, never cultivated. Bruce often wonders if Jason sometimes forgets he’s breathing, or has to feel his pulse to know that he’s not six foot under heavy dirt, sleeping soundlessly in a way that only dead people can.

It his fault, and his fault alone.

Every glance makes him want to understand, shoulder Jason’s pain. But he knows that he cannot feel each hit of the crowbar, splinter of bone under metal. He cannot feel the heat of the explosion, the pain of being stitched back alive by the Lazarus pit.

Every anniversary, early, before anyone wakes up who resides at the manor that seems too big on a day like this, he visits Jason’s room. It’s neat, neater than Tim’s or Dick’s, and everything is covered in a layer of dust as if suspended in time.

Sometimes Bruce walks past and the door is slightly ajar. Jason sits in the middle, alone, staring at the parts of his life when being alive was normalcy taken for granted like the rising and setting of the sun. Nothing is ever moved - Bruce doesn’t need to check - and deep down, coiling in his stomach like a noose, the mighty batman knows that the boy-man cannot feel anything from his old life other than the hollowing betrayal; a bitter prickly pain which eats away at the remaining part of his soul, tainted so very much by all that has transpired.

Bruce knows the feeling all too well. Preparedness is a prerequisite for victory, he always said, but that day he wasn’t prepared. Bruce was never late for anything: parties, press conferences or breakfast, but he was late on the day that it really mattered.

On the night of his son’s death, the anniversary of the day that he failed, the Batman combines with Bruce Wayne in a way that doesn’t occur on any other night. Both alter ego and man sit silent. Surrounded by the cacophony of wailing sirens, piercing gun shots and the sound of a city at arms, he shrouds himself with the truths that are hidden everyday until today. They consume him like vines, squeeze him senseless.

Only the stars, silenced forever but privy to his secrets, witness the great Batman break over the death of his son, Jason Todd.

Chapter Text

Damian Wayne, formally known as Damian Al-Ghul, stood shrouded in the shadow near the double doors of the ballroom. The thick summer breeze filtered through the open doors, the thin slip of a curtain billowing, not unlike some of the expensive dresses paraded by the wealthy at the gala. Damian felt out of place even away from the crowds, in an orbit of his own that didn’t quite match everyone else.

The boy could feel it rife in his veins, suffocating: the need to be free. Damian was a warrior, a fighter, not some centre piece to be paraded around and shown off like a prized animal as the heir to Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy. He longed for the openness of the desert and the dry heat that would only greet him with familiarity. Instead, he was bathed with the stifling acrid air of Gotham, sticky with pollution.

There was something almost feral about Damian Wayne, those brave enough to comment on him at these functions said, and they were right. From the baring of his teeth when cornered, to the graceful predatory ease of his gait, it was visible below the undercurrents of etiquette practice that Damian embraced the wild inside more than most fourteen, almost fifteen year olds. He was like a horse, tame for now. Tame, until the wild called. Tame, until instinct overran the lessons. You could take the animal out of the wild, but it would always flee in danger.

It was true for him too; you could take Damian out of the League of Assassins, but the assassin cultivated by his Mother and Grandfather would always remain inside, waiting to be called to arms again.

There was no doubt that Damian was Bruce’s son. His burnished gold skin, more pronounced under the soft lighting of the chandelier was really the only difference between Father and Son. Both had the same broad shoulders stretched under their neat jackets, the same thickly cut jawline and more athletic build. For that, he was treated as if he were a younger version of his Father, as if he had the same impeccable manners and charismatic magnetism.

But Damian wasn’t like his father in that sense. The boy not only had his Mother’s eyes - a piercing green that people ah’ed and ooh’ed over to his distaste - but he predominantly had her nature. He was cutting, fairly cynical, but more intelligent than most with a wit that was lost on many. Damian was charming enough to cover up that he was rough around the edges when it came to fleeting interactions, enough that society turned a blind eye to the occasional break in English or barbed comment.

In the corner, alone, Damian watched the wealthy interact with glittering jewels dropping off fingers and wrists. He wanted to sneer at the ridiculousness, the ritualistic way they greeted and talked, the pompous voices and laughs that was heightened by the acoustics of the rooms. Strip the leeches of their fine clothing and wads of green, Damian knew they’d all be similar with their puckered faces and indignant scoffs.

He pulled at his collar, not used to sweltering heat in such thick evening wear. It hadn’t been this hot for a gala in years, and no one was used to the warmth. Under his finely tailored suit was a body littered with scars, covering every inch of him like ravings of an insomniac. They were messy, white scrawls that scuffed almost painfully on his starched white shirt; all a bitter reminder of his time with his Mother and Grandfather. Damian desperately tried to hide the past, bury it, and these were the only things left that would never disappear.

An eternal reminder of failure.

In the distance, the boy strained to hear the noise of Gotham awakening. The sirens and gun shots were faint but audible nonetheless; after all, crime didn’t stop because Bruce Wayne was holding a gala to raise money for rehabilitation of convicts. Damian itched for his robin suit, to do up the red laces on his boots and feel the wind across his face. It was cathartic, it was freedom, and he loved it.

The stars glittered brightly on the dark sky, and Damian silently named each constellation from memory, a lesson that he would never forget from his Mother. A small part of him which he quashed on most days and only surfaced when felt so far removed from everything, yearned for Talia. Damian wondered if she, too, glanced up at the same stars, recited the names of the burning balls of gas to herself and thought about him.

His reverie was permeated by the clinking of glass on glass, Grayson’s smooth timber and the warm pressure of someone’s hand on his shoulder. “C’mon, little D, ten minutes more and it’s all done. Stay with me and I’ll promise you that you don’t have to talk to anyone.”

I’m not little, Grayson.” It was spat acridly, and yet his older brother laughed, looking at Damian as if he were a kitten, or something just as sweet.

“I know, but let me think of you still as my kid brother, hm?”

The boy cracked a smile. This was home now, far removed from his childhood: this was his place in the world. He was Damian Al-Ghul always, but now he was Damian Wayne, son of Bruce Wayne, and he was Robin.

Chapter Text

“What was it like...dying?”

The same question came from Bruce, from Dick, even the replacement. That one question which had the ability to stop Jason in his tracks immediately. It was innocent, curiously asked but laced with fear and a semblance of respect, as if their minds weren’t fully made up with how to address it. ‘It’ being how he ended up being so messed up. Faces carefully guarded yet eyes wide with openness, Jason wanted to scoff at them every time.

But those five words, five insignificant words were his undoing. That was all it took for the dam that protected him to burst. The memories, gained with blood and searing pain barrel out not unlike a tsunami wave - unstoppable and devastating in power - consuming him. Jason hates the fact that the Lazarus pit caused his childhood to fuzz over, barely graspable in his mind, but those months remain with unsettling intensity. Every second he relives drags Jason under, sucking him beneath tumbling waves with all intents purpose to drown him.

In truth, he doesn’t know the correct answer to their question, nor if that was the very question they meant to ask. He can see it in the replacement’s face - Tim, he reminds himself - full of the fresh sparkle of justice. Jason knows he’s asking because the slip of a boy is nervous, and never truly started death in the face like Jason has. Dick, on the other hand asks with morbid curiosity, as if Jason can give him an insight to his future. And Bruce, much greyer and less talkative than he used to be, has a fractured quality to his voice that is easily identifiable as the need to understand.

He doesn’t really. Jason knows the old man only wants forgiveness, and that he is not going to get.

Indulging in these memories is not a conscious decision. The thoughts override his want to bury them and lock them deep, instead springing up with a vividness that he does not ever want in the forefront of his mind.

The first hit of the crowbar, the second, third and fourth too, the adrenaline ruled out the pain. Jason, as naive as he was, had energy only for the hope of rescue and had no interest in the thoughts of death. Each splinter of metal on bone after that, however, hurt like fireworks of molten shrapnel. He remembers poignantly thinking that blood seemed to look brighter when it was your own. The crowbar viewed through his swollen, tired eyes had been a beautifully monstrous creation with its long, thin metal and curved ends. It had glinted in the fizzling light with his blood splattered on it like freckles. He had laughed, then.

It was the wait, the acceptance of death and the unknown that truly broke him. Dying was an anti-climatic thing, a split second affair, but this drawn out over months was worse. Jason’s hope distinguished acridly in his stomach, morphing into a sense of bitter finality over the situation. There was always a flicker left, he never truly gave up, not until he knew it was too late.

At this point he would have welcome Death with gratitude, anything other than the bite of barbed wire in his neck or the numbness that settled in his bones. He wished for the End like it were a gift he had always wanted.

And then, there was the explosion. All he could see was Bruce and Dick, Batman and Robin: the perfect duo. The pain was so bad that he felt nothing, and Jason grinned a bloodied smile that was at most a crack of bruised lips. It wasn’t how he had expected to go, he remembered thinking. The infamous Robin, beaten beyond compare both physically and mentally. Jason wished for a lot of things in that moment as the flames burnt brightly coloured as they licked through the material of his suit.

Only one was granted.

At this point he snaps out of the haze, the Joker’s laugh ringing in his ears like a broken record. The person who questioned him watch him as if he were a feral animal, and Jason sometimes wants to bare his teeth at them just to see what happens.

Of course, he cannot tell them what’s branded into his mind and which plagues him night after night, cold a sweat after cold sweat. Subconsciously, his calloused fingers find his cheek where the lumpy, scarred ‘J’ should be. It isn’t there any longer, the Lazarus Pit’s doing; it’s not there on the surface but Jason knows it still is, a ghost of an indentation right through to his skull.

He still hasn’t answered them. He looks up, or looks down, anywhere but the person’s eyes and says quietly, almost with a surreal lilt to his rough voice the biggest lie to leave his lips.

“It was, well, it was like falling asleep.”

Chapter Text

The blue light shone down on them like refracted sapphire; the frills of their shimmering costumes reflecting ornery green blue speckles on the dark tent, tumbled light so bright that it illuminated features on the audience’s faces. Every tier was jam packed, faces upon faces upon faces staring up in infantile wonder, eyes and mouths rounder than the full blown moon. They were here to see him, here to see his parents. Each person, gripping the worn velvet of the seats were here to see them swoop, swing, fly.

Dick looked up at the roof, twinkling from the lighting as if there really were stars above him. The red and white of the tent was dark, darker than he thought he had ever seen it, the white sprinkles seeming brighter, more hypnotic. The blue cast everything deep ultramarine, as if they were swirling in the sea.

Drowning.

Exhilaration pumped through him, made his blood sing. This was him, what he was born to do alongside his parents. Dick glanced at his mother, proud next to him. She squeezed his shoulder, a warm pressure that relaxed the tension that had seeped in. His father sent a thumbs up towards them from the other side, smile stretched across his face. And then, the light illuminated them. Bright, different colours swam across his vision, but Dick was used to it. Used to this.

Waving, each took their positions, arms outstretched and backs arched in gracefulness. “Love you, Dickie,” his mother whispered, voice as soft as the summer breeze that filtered underneath the fissure near the door.

Blue bleached their sequinned suits, and his mother swung away from him. He couldn’t help it, his small fingers reaching out instinctively for her. He snapped them back, placing them securely on the trapeze, taking a deep breath that calmed him to become as still as the ocean.

And then he was floating, flying, high above the world. Dick could hear the gasps of awe, of excitement, and it fuelled him like gasoline on a bonfire. He loved the performance, of using his gift to illicit such reactions from the audience, from people that everyday wouldn’t send a second gaze at him. It was being the true him, not a boy hiding behind a persona.

Dick was alive.

Each flip, each switch, the clapping increased, growing louder like the crash of waves at high tide, like thunderclouds rolling down the hill on a humid afternoon. Swoop, swing, fly. It was written into his heart and branded on his skin. The blue light sent yet more speckles across the audience as he spun. He swooped back, weightless. His parents, sharing, flying towards him to the open trapeze. This was how it was meant to be, always.

And then the world imploded.

They passed him, smiles turning into something much more frightening, something that would plague him forever and ever and ever. The crack of rope breaking filled the silence like a gunshot. His mother and father flew, hands outstretched. They flew, but they flew down towards the ground, plummeting like dead birds, like stones into water. Speckled blue reflected across his face as they fell.

Down, down, spiralling towards the inevitable.

Dick screamed, hands outstretched in a bid to catch them. Their fingers brushed softly. They fell, fell and Dick couldn’t stop it, the frills and ruffles of his mother and fathers suit fluttered from the draft. It was like the moment was preserved in viscous time, as if the seconds stopped.

He saw the way his mother and father mouthed at him, the “I love you” seeming too finite. Dick’s eyes spilled over with tears, voice cracking as he screamed. His parents floated with their arms outstretched, graceful even in their final moments.

His eyes were open, and he could see it happen right in front of him.

When they hit the sand, Dick knew that it was a nightmare come true, the broken flurry of blood to his heart reinforcing what he did not want to accept. But his beloved parents bodies were skewed, faces permanently in a state of shock, blue eyes both forever wide. The sand billowed around them, covering the turquoise and blue in a thin layer of tan. A blanket, as if protecting them.

There was nothing left to do but scream.

(A Grayson always belongs on the trapeze, young Richard.)

Chapter Text

Patrol was a shit storm. Always was, and Tim Drake was pretty sure it always would be.
Gotham was a city that thrives on darkness, a city that was so inherently evil that many thought it deserved to blown off the face of the earth. So much of the city was damaged beyond repair, most shop windows shattered spider webs where bricks had been thrown in. Citizens who always carried weapons which ranged from mace to a handgun walked the streets. But Tim, he couldn’t help see the beauty in it.

He often wondered if this ability to see the good in a place so blackened and messed up stemmed from finding the normality in his siblings, in the people that were more broken than the city itself. The people he patrolled with, who kept civilians safe and would put their life on the line in a split second without a thought, were some of the most fragmented people he had ever had the pleasure of knowing.

They were family.

Dick Grayson, the first boy wonder. He had treated Tim as an equal, a comrade at arms. But lurking deep inside the cheerful and charismatic outer shell was a man that was angry to the point of self destruction. Dick, kind and comforting Dick, had a temper that burned brighter than a flame, raged longer than a wildfire and was sparked as easy as a match. His brother, as Nightwing, increasingly patrolled with tense shoulders, sweet acrobatics and joking morphing more into punches that were meant to injure. Tim was sure that deep down, Dick Grayson could kill and wouldn’t think twice.

Jason Todd, second boy wonder. God, no one was more fucked up than Jason. He was at war with the world, at war with himself. Jason’s warped morals were disfigured beyond belief, and yet the man would always fire a shot that would save your sorry arse without expecting a word of gratitude. He was the original hot and then cold, and he could be gentle turning rough in a split second. With callous language he would address you as if you were the worst of the worse, and the next minute would shove you out the way, taking a knife for you. The man was loyal, broken, mistrusted. Personally, Tim respected him the most. He’d come back from death and was slowly coming alive again.

Then there was Barbara, Oracle with a broken past of Batgirl. She was quick witted, incredibly skilled with a computer. Tim often wished that he’d known her before she was shot by the joker, before her life as she bested was ripped away. But she said that she preferred this life, and that made Tim respect her even more. Barbara was his reminder that he was not immortal, and the woman kept them all grounded, all reminding them that they were not invincible. Tim trusted her; she was badass, she was tough, and she was smart.

Cassandra. Quiet as a mouse, as deadly as an eagle: Cass was an archangel that gave protection as easy as she fought on the offensive. The girl was troubled, bound to silence mostly, but Tim knew that she was easily the most skilled, the most reliable. The girl was small, a slip of a woman, and yet she moved with the deadly slink of a predator. Tim had watched her once take out five assassins. He’d never asked where she learnt it, that borderline brutality was not Bruce’s training that was for sure, and she never gave the information. She had killed, he could see it in her eyes.

And then, there was the Demon. Damian Wayne, Bruce’s biological son that was more messed up than everyone added together. He was cutting, sarcastic to the point of offensive, with a superiority complex that implied that he’d been treated as a prince as a child. Tim had hated him at first, the boy was so abrasive, so full of himself and ready to fight anyone and everything, as if the world was against him. But then he saw the scars, the long lines of thick tissue that ran either side of his spinal cord. The boy had been punished by the worst of the worst, Bruce had told him in confidence, his spine replaced with a metal one. Damian couldn’t feel love, the policy of watching each other’s backs lost on a boy that had only worked alone, all product of a tortured childhood.

Lastly, Bruce Wayne, the Batman himself.
Sometimes a cold and far removed man, who showed a myriad of emotions by a series of grunts. Other times, Bruce was talkative and gave praise as readily he gave constructive criticism. As a father figure, Bruce serious lacked skills, but as a mentor he was one of the best. A fun activity for Bruce was to buy a whole new wardrobe for his children, and a fun activity for Batman was to get his protégés to spar for three hours. It was like living with two different people: the charming billionaire who lived for the party, and the moody goth child that sulked in a dark room for days on end. Sometimes they would amalgamate and Tim had no idea where to stand.

These people, these adolescents - and Bruce, who was probably more adolescent than any of them - who were stuck in a period of life that made them much older than they were, were his family. They protected each other whilst protecting the citizens of Gotham. All of them fitted in just right with the derelict houses that had once been family homes, the streets in which crime was an occurrence to turn a blind eye at. It was two sides of the same coin, it was the physical manifestation of themselves.

The night had connotations of all things weird and wonderful. But Tim Drake, third boy wonder and current Red Robin, thought that the night was the best part of the day.

He couldn’t think of anywhere he’d rather be.

Chapter Text

The man standing before him, reflected back with startling clarity even in the cracked mirror, was not Richard John Grayson. He was greeted with a face that looked like it had seen horrors of soldiers fighting wars, witnessed more death first hand than a funeral director and that had been scarred by it. The strong jaw and magnetic blue eyes did not belong to the Last Flying Grayson, the First Boy Wonder nor the team leader of the teenage super team The Titans. It wasn’t his reflection - it couldn’t be - because the face staring back at him was far too old.

His body was war harried, mangled almost, with its red and purple bruising littering his tanned skin like watercolour tattoos. It spoke volumes of pain, perseverance and pressure; no plane of his skin was unmarred, his body no longer masked the brutality that he received night after night, the beating he endured and got back up from. Lithe and muscular at first glance, his body could easily be mistaken as that of a toned man of his age. But closer, closer, Dick’s eyes are drawn to every raised white mark like moths to a flame.

Each scar had a story, though he seldom remembered anymore. One nasty slice was gifted to him by Slade Wilson, he remembered that; when the cold nights drew in, snow banked against every surface like blanket forts and was trodden down hallways like icing sugar, that scar ached the most. He had a few noticeable bullet wounds from both night and day job, a few from when he trained with the Titans too, some of them with joining with head full of suspicion, superiority and inherent insecurity.

Mostly, he had forgotten how he got the marks. Carelessly he had pushed away the memories, too tired and not caught up with everything to really comprehend them. Koriand’r, Starfire as she was known, was the only person that could ground him, make him speak about the past and remember slowly how he had got each scar. Her different, forward approach - which many were apprehensive of or disliked - he found refreshing. Dick loved the Tamaranean woman for her kind heart and soul, as well as the fact that she could single handedly save him from his thoughts.

Thoughts like that every scar he had been awarded was in the name of Justice, and yet Justice had never truly been served.

The world wasn’t fair, that Dick knew all too well. He had seen it first heartbreakingly in the death’s of his parents, reeking of injustice as his eyes were drawn to their falling bodies and the fact that there was no safety net. He saw it in the man slumped outside his appartement block with gnarled hands outstretched for anything: money, food, clothes. He saw it in the little girl, legs swinging unawares, eating the cereal bar he had offered her whilst her father was sentenced guilty to the murder of her mother.

Deep in the belly of Gotham and Bludhaven, when nightfall came, was where he truly witnessed it. The people there had little to no choice; they turned to unsavoury activities - odd jobs to make ends meet and pay for a loaf of bread or their next fix - their only real crime being the curse of where they were born. Every first cry had been drowned out by gunshot and sirens, their fate sealed like an envelope. It wasn’t fair, but it was the truth. The corruption, lack of compassion that stemmed generations, bred criminal after criminal. Dick had seen it too many times, and no matter how you tried to make it better, it never was.

It showed in Dick’s eyes, which looked far to old to belong on his face. The blue, a dark ocean blue not unlike the colour of his insignia, was framed rather strikingly by the black bruise swollen around his left, not yet going down as if to prove a point. Instead holding a warming and comforting softness which had been remarked upon by the media and friends alike as his best feature, Dick only saw haunted, soulless holes staring back at him.

He supposed that it was the brutal life that he had lived that has changed him. There was a darkness inside of him that he let out to play sometimes when he fought. When he had started feeling like a shell, to feel something even if it was anger and hatred, was enough. He gave in more, and more, and more, his fighting borderline killing those he went against. He had seen the worst of the world, grown up with it, and some even remarked that Nightwing had become it.

When had Dick Grayson, bubbled Boy Wonder, disappeared? When had he aged so much?

Dick was tired. His body was tired, his mind was tired, everything about him was tired. He worked night and day for Justice, with nothing to show apart from a battered body and a broken spirit. Corruption still spread like wildfire, no matter how Kori looked at him with wide, understanding eyes and told him in her frank way that it would always be there, but Dick made it less than it could be, and that was something.

Collapsing on his bed, Dick kicked the comforter off. It was a hot night, stifling and thick with stickiness, and he should have been on patrol. Somewhere out there, his adopted father and brother Tim fought crime and protected the innocent. He should be there too, out in the night, but the weight of his legs kept him firmly on the bed.

So he did the one thing that could get him kick started. He took out his robin suit.

Running his hands lightly, almost reverently, over the suit Dick couldn’t help but crack a smile. The bright colours, scaly tight pants that were the topic of ridicule - but he found highlighted his derrière very nicely and was very proud - never failed to force him to find purpose.

This suit was a beacon of hope. It inspired protection, sought to help the innocent and had saved many, many lives with him in it. Robin was a symbol, an angel to those who lived in Gotham. He was a survivor, a fighter, and he never gave up because he was Robin, and it was his job to keep people safe and watch over them.

Dick remembered the time he had saved a pregnant lady from being mugged, and she had honoured him by naming her child Robin. The baby was a curly haired, pretty little thing. He remembered the men, women and children he saved from hit and runs, knife crimes and burglaries.

The love he had experienced from Bruce, and from the rest of the world was what the suit embodied for him. Bruce had taken him in as a troubled youngster and made him into who he was today. Robin was his childhood; the movie nights, birthday cakes, parents evenings at Gotham Academy followed by patrol. Robin was his youth, his sparkle, his drive. Dick had had some awful stuff happen to him, he had seen some messed up things, done some too. But he had partaken in wonderful events that restored faith in humanity, been a hero and had kept people from harm. There was no point in wallowing over spilt milk, over times that could not have been prevented and problems that were part of the world. Robin represented that every little helps, that to stop hate from spreading you have to combat it in a way that is very much about love: second chances. Life.

He remembered how much he was needed, because someone had to keep people safe and that was what he was meant to do.

Pulling on his Nightwing suit and domino mask, Dick was rejuvenated. Purpose was back, and the world around him seemed to come alive. The blue bird stretched across his chest made him proud, settled in his stomach a force that pushed him to do good. Setting his jaw and tugging on the last of his suit, Dick felt more at ease. It was easy to let the weight of the world settle on your shoulders, but sometimes you had to look past it to see the good. And he had. Somewhere, he knew, Kori was smiling and telling him that it was the right decision. He knew that it was the right decision for him, too.

And with that, Nightwing entered the world of the night focussed on Life, and not Death.

Chapter Text

Surrounded by the trees, Damian watched the sun rise above the writhing mass of mist that was Gotham city. Alone in the vast, rambling grounds of the Manor, he listened to the light chirp of the resident birds, the swishing of the leaves permeated only by the low hum of bees on the chamomile. This was his spot - his hidden paradise - tangled away behind three towering pines where shafts of pure golden sunshine would soon bathed the soft, mossy floor.

This hidden oasis was, in fact, originally Todd’s. Silently, he had lead Damian there one morning to watch the hazy red sun rise. No words were exchanged but they didn’t have to be; it was written across Jason’s face like ancient scriptures of human nature: the need to be understood. And now, Damian could. They shared something - too tentative to be a bond, but stronger than a fleeting likeness - over being the only people to really comprehend the concept of time. Both had suffered, experienced something so other-worldly that it simply wasn’t possible, yet it was. Both were inextricably broken from one day to the next by an experience that demanded their silence.

Both of them should be dead.

They weren’t.

The Manor had always been bustling with life, ever since Damian had arrived. It had been too loud, too distracting at first and he had missed home. Some days he would long for the silent corridors that stretched on for decades, pierced not even by the sound of footfall of the people that walked down them without a sound. The only noise the young boy had been used to was the sting of warm whipped sand against the buildings and the trickle of the marble fountain situated in the middle of the emerald fresh grass grove; sacred stillness that bred an assassin. Wayne Manor, however, was a pulsing ball of stress and excitement all rolled into one.

Now that he was back, Damian’s hearing was piqued much, much easier. Even the slightest sound, the tiny creak at two in the morning in the east wing on the other side of the imposing house would be audible as if it were a heady roll of thunder. The hair on his nape - his arms and his legs too - would stand to attention for no reason, as if something just beyond the constraints of the human mind lingered beside him. In a house where someone was always shuffling around the kitchen or running down the thickly carpeted corridors, Damian could never find solitude. Always noise, and he craved more than ever absolutely none.

“Your eyes,” Dick had once commented quietly as they sat on the rooftops together, heads seemingly brushing the stars. It was tentative between them after he came back, the heavy weight of guilt resting upon his older brothers shoulders. “They...they almost glow up here in the dark. The brightest green I’ve ever seen.”

Lazarus green, Damian knew too well. It was a captivatingly unsettling colour that worked its way under someone’s skin, burned into their mind because there was something so unusual about the hue that it stuck in your mind for as long as you lived. Damian could hear the way Grayson was unnerved and trying not to be, his voice wobbling ever so slightly. No part of him blamed his brother for being that way. That was the price for life, he supposed, for destroying the natural order that had been crafted for a reason. To live the rest of it as an outsider.

Resurrection had done things to Damian, changed his very molecular make up into something that wasn’t recognisable anymore. On the outside it was him, but on the inside it was someone else, a broken fragment of a boy that was already too damaged to even start with.

The lights would tell him that as he passed, flickering with an ominous crackle that had goosebumps flare up his arms like wildfire. Mirrors too, all distorted shadows in thin air that after the first time he had been ignorant enough to look has shook him to the core.

No reflection.

Damian had loved to help Alfred with the garden, before. They would sit together pruning the roses, or pulling weeds swaddled in companionable silence. But now, the plants that he touched would die in a couple of days, blackened and rotting like something out of the great plagues of the Bible. Damian hadn’t emerged from his room that day, too smothered by his own thoughts to show his face in shame.

He should have known that death did not take kindly to being cheated.

On days where the sun was long in the sky and his siblings would laugh and joke around a camp fire erected in the closest part of the garden, telling each other tales and stories that had Drake in particular almost in tears, Damian would sit just out of their orbit. Silent. He didn’t belong here. Not anymore.

Todd - Jason - would sit next to him then, all gangly sinew of a nineteen year old, but with a face that was too old, too haunting. Together, they would relish in the quiet the longed for, in the mutual trauma they both shared. Often, he would offer Damian a cigarette; being fifteen and touched by the rebellion of youth, often the boy would take it. The nicotine would soothe him only slightly, his mother’s incessant voice chanting that Damian was a warrior and warriors did not have vices. Bitterly, he would stub out the glowing ember before he’d even had a good drag.

Then, he would let the world swallow him whole, for that was the only release he would ever feel.

Nothing was the same anymore. Before, Damian had felt inherently off when Jason walked past, as if something seeping frozen air had sucked the warmth from his very skin. It had been highly unpleasant, but Damian was a Wayne and Al-Ghul by blood, and nothing bothered him. Now, he knew it all to well that the people around him experienced it too.

Grayson was close and yet distant. His father was hovering, as if expecting the boy to disappear into thin air. Drake was normal, but even he and Brown shared glances sometimes that Damian knew were about him. Even his animals were wary of him. They recognised their master, but their ears were always pricked, as if expecting something darker to flow out of him; animals were perceptive, Damian knew, and they could feel that he had become someone else.

Something else.

Damian ran his fingers over the coarse bark, his body speckled with the golden sun not tainted yet by Gotham’s pollution. He wanted to cry, for the first time in his life he wanted it more than anything.

This was no life he was living, no freedom. It was like being constrained in a cage of weight iron, hidden just out of the sunlight but enough that you could almost touch it, the beam on the floor mere milimetres from your fingertips but too far.

Damian understood Todd now when he said he never wanted to come back, because nothing was the same. Laying down as the sun began to peak over peach clouds, the boy with the world on his shoulders allowed the tears to fall.

He was a prisoner, an outsider, forever.

 

Chapter Text

Dick Grayson couldn’t believe his eyes, and neither could his brothers. They listened for the sounds of a city at arms, but were met with none. Not even their wildest dreams could have amounted to this; looking up at the buildings reaching the stars they could not comprehend the world in front of them.

No blood, no screams, no civil war between psychopaths and civilians. The streets may have been the same, the traffic lights the same, the buildings the same but the air was tinged with something that had never been present before.

Relief.

Cars horns blared out on the road next to them, but there were no sirens, no gunshots that would make the nausea rise in anyone’s throat, the hairs on their arms stand to attention as if they too realised that someone out there was dead, dying.

Gotham city was bittersweetly quiet, for once, but nonetheless alive. The strings of bulbs strung between the streets changed their colours and people walked along with laughter that floated towards the heavens, sweet and free. Surrounding streets were pleasantly dotted with people on their way home, actual people who were not suffocating with fear, whose steps were not hurried or stilted or looking as if they were a split second away from running for their life. There were no keys clasped in their white knuckled fingers, no hand in a bag ready with a gun, no loitering henchman under flickering street lamps.

The skyscrapers that brushed the stars glittered, even with the thick smog that seemed to settle over Gotham in a permanent thickness that coloured everything grey. But now, staring up at the myriad of shapes that uniquely shaped Gotham’s cityscape, it seemed lighter as if someone had breathed out over the city and the noxious grey was lessened. 

Jason let out a barking laugh full of derision but tinged with something to quite discernible, and Tim leaned forward with misted eyes flicking to every possible part of Gotham visible form the centre they stood at. Even Damian, a relative stranger in the clutches of Gotham was flashing between confused and curious.

It was how they had dreamed it to be: free of crime, so that people could wander the streets without being terrified and children could have a real childhood with fairgrounds and ice-creams and parents who smiled. 

But they all knew that something was amiss. Nothing came without a price, a price that they had all sworn to strive for even if it meant it took their life. For Gotham to no longer be a slum collecting the slurry of underground crime, the crème de la crème of gangsters and monsters and psychopaths alike, something had changed.

“Look.” Dick didn’t want to look, nor Jason, for Tim’s voice was devoid of emotion in a way that they had only heard once before: concerning the death of their father. The stone he was pointing at was situated in a garden of green, of lush grass and fountains and lacy flowers.

A shrine. A rememberance. A grave.

For they all knew the inevitable which would occur one day. The risks were always niggling in the back of their minds, the knowledge that they would most likely never meet their fortieth birthday because that was the job, and the toll it took on a body not made for the job they did. Waiting for your death was morbid, but it gave time to change the world because it was known that there was a limited time to make a difference. 

Watching and waiting: it was a gamblers game, the moment of silence in a church which feels like a lifetime, the way that boring days seem to drag on endlessly like a long, heavy silk train behind you.

But seeing your own name, with a two dates written in gilded writing was not easy, not even once you and accepted the fate dealt.

Dick Grayson, Damian Wayne, Jason Todd, Tim Drake. In memory of, to rest in peace, saviours of a city that no one deemed worth saving.

28, 24, 19, 14.

The ultimate sacrifice for a city to be able to watch the sun rise and know that the worst was over. Forever, we give thanks to them. And they will never be forgotten, living on in our hearts and our memories as true heroes always will.

Motionless, the world stopped beating. Four young men - four boys who had once had lives in front of them but had made the unlitmate sacrifice - looked at each other. They were ghosts of the past, ghosts who were no longer trapped, ghosts which had completed what they had come to find and were free.

And so were the people of Gotham.

A long time ago in a far away city there were four boys who lived shrouded in the encompassing shadow of the night, watching and waiting for the imminent, but who looked to a future in the setting sun over a city riddled with inequity and corruption.

They would never see the sun rise on a Gotham that was free, but because of them it would come to be.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time Gotham knew a kid called Richard Grayson, whose smiles lit up the very streets that he was seen on. There was not one person that didn’t find his loveable charm infectious. Cartwheeling along in her city of disrepair, Dick Grayson brightened the very darkest of nights.

Once upon a time Gotham knew another boy called Jason Todd, all charisma and smirks and loyalty unparalleled to anyone else. He was from Gotham’s very own belly, nurtured by her and someone who survived. A boy tarnished by the cards he had been dealt but who was kind anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

Once upon a time Gotham knew Tim Drake, lonely in a house far too big for him. He was polite, intelligent, a person who felt the weight on his shoulders but carried it with dignity. A boy who was sweet and gentle, who looked to protect others before himself without thinking of the consequences.

Once upon a time Gotham knew a boy called Damian Wayne, who hid a fragile heart under spits of acid. Gotham watched him grow and blossom, repair the broken parts of himself which shouldn’t have been so broken. There was something about Damian Wayne that was enticing, and Gotham wished for him to stay.

But that was a long time ago, and now they are nothing but strangers to her, people that she no longer recognises.

Dick Grayson’s playful manner fools no one but himself, hunched shoulders a giveaway and face hardened to an unrecognisable state. When he smiles, it never reaches his lips.

Jason Todd disappeared, and rumour was that he died. When he returned to her streets, there was something about him that was never right, something that hung over him that made people shiver as he passed. Jason doesn’t smirk anymore.

Tim Drake has a cynicism that spills past boundaries, spills into his life. Gotham watches the sensitive young boy push those who only wish to love and care for him far away, and his heart cease to beat for anything but facts.

Damian Wayne, Gotham had such high hopes for. But the sword would always find its way into his hands, the blood always under his nails, always part of him. He was too far gone to ever truly return, and his mark is ingrained into her very streets, the mark of an assassin born and bred.

Once upon a time Gotham knew four boys - four good kids who could have changed the world - but she always gets them eventually. She doesn’t want to, but it’s her curse. The good will always fall in her streets, because Gotham will always be destined to corrupt.