He had known from the very start of this particular mission that there would be very little need of secrecy involved, but the years of training under Batman and the League had shaped the way his body moved in such a deep manner that it was just too unnatural not to try to blend in with the shadows around him. Instead than controlling that impulse, it would be easier to go in the opposite way and make himself known; he could do it too: after all the Red Hood has not a common sight in Blüdhaven for some years now, but he isn’t a secret either and criminals usually have a long memory.
He still finds himself hesitating. And it’s not because of the Batmobile approaching on the street just across from the building he’s currently on top, no. Batman knows he’s here, it’s a legitimate assumption that he’s always aware of the Red Hood’s movements. He finds that he doesn’t mind it that much. Before, when he was still a kid, that constant surveillance had bothered him like nothing else had, but in time he’d got used to it. Now their paths had been severed for too long for it to be a problem or even a nuisance anymore. It’s just a reminiscence of that what was once done out of love and is now done out of suspect, fear, maybe anger. He, himself, had stopped caring a long time ago, he just finds it sad that the old man could not let it go.
Several floors beneath him, in the yard outside the antique shop he's keeping his eye on, three masked men start moving the crates from the storehouse into the back of a black van. The man he's here for tonight hasn't shown up yet, but he isn’t surprised about that, Owain Dorsey had a reputation for being a hard one to locate, and as much as it pains him to admit it, hearing about this operation was more of a stroke of luck than the result of months of hard research. Luck was also a debatable term in this case, since he would have very gladly avoided coming back on the continent, let alone on this very city. Sure, Gotham would’ve been worse, but given the circumstances, not even that much so.
He picks up the binoculars from the floor and scans the west side once more. Batman would come in from the north, unless he decides to go around the store, in which case he would have to find a way to distract him long enough to make sure he wouldn't go after Dorsey before him. He has no reason to believe Batman knows anything about his operation, but better be careful anyway: he knows there are other eyes around, and he knows they are no longer on his side (if they ever were, that’s it).
He checks the gun strapped to his left leg, making sure that the holster is unfastened, then he runs his gloved fingers along the edge of the katana at his other side. He’s not nervous about having to use either of them, but he’s not looking forward the discussion he’s going to have with Talia if any of this goes wrong. Not to mention the one he’s going to have with the asshole that is the new Demon’s Head, who’s never agreed with this plan to start with.
He sucks in a sharp breath, closes his eyes for the split of a moment and, finally, he jumps.
Batman gets there before him, which was somehow expected because if there’s a talent he can recognize to the man, it’s his timing: never there when you most need him, always in your way at the least opportune moment. He’s not too worried, though. Tonight should not be hard, there will be no killing involved and no moral conflict about what needs to be done. What he needs is one single information, and a bit of violence was never frowned upon too much, not even when he was a kid and the adults around him were so, so busy settling an example for him.
The back of the van spews out three more masked goons the exact moment Batman lands in the middle of the yard, and he smiles behind his helmet, looking at their guns. One of them is holding a gold plated Desert Eagle, and that’s what he was looking for: the stupid and very distinctive little quirk that had made Dorsey instantly identifiable, linking him to a series of robberies targeting antique shops and jewellery stores.
Batman doesn’t even look at him as they fight back to back against the small group of thieves. He tries to hold back enough not to cause serious damage, but all in all he doesn’t worry too much about the punches he’s landing: as long as the gun stays where it is, Batman shouldn't have anything to complain about. He keeps an eye on Dorsey, but doesn’t show too much interest in him either, merely knocking him back a few times.
“On your left”, Batman growls, and he ducks immediately, his body so trained he doesn’t even give himself the time to discuss the order. It upsets him a little that the instinct to obey that voice is still so strong in him, like it hadn't been years since he'd worn the Robin's costume, like all the blood and betrayal that has happened between then and now means nothing just because they’re together again. And he hates that a part of him really believes that, he hates that this feels so familiar it makes his heart hurt, he hates finding out that he had missed this.
“Think about yourself”, he growls back, and he takes advantage of the clumsy attack of one of his opponents to grab the man by the arm, twirl around on his feet, and throw him against Batman's back. Low blow, he knows, but if the old man hadn't seen it coming, it's not his fault.
Batman goes down on one knee for just one moment, and that’s all he needs. He grabs Dorsey by the collar of his jacket, pulls out his grappling hook and shoots it above their heads. They’re both gone in a matter of seconds, and Batman shouting behind him only adds some sweetness to his victory. He won’t be able to follow them right away, not with five other men trying to keep him on the ground.
He lands on the roof of the building that had served him as a point of observation all night long. The bag he had purposely left open is still there, sporting a few tools that would come quite handy in the unlikely event this discussion should not go down the way he wants it to. He makes sure Dorsey understands this by throwing him down on the concrete just next to the bag, his nose almost touching one of the sharp tips poking out of it.
“Where is it?”, he asks, the helmet warping his voice into a metallic rasp.
The mask on Dorsey’s face is long gone: small eyes stuck into a lump of fat vaguely shaped like a human face look up at him, bloodshot and scared.
“I don’t know what-”
He doesn’t give him the time to finish and pushes his right foot right into the man’s trachea long enough for the man's lips to take on a vague bluish tinge, as Dorsey wriggles underneath him and tries, without success, to get rid of the combat boot that is crushing him.
“The book”, he repeats in the same even, scary voice. “Tell me where it is, if you want to be still able to talk about anything ever again.”
He removes his foot, allowing the man to take in two quick breaths, and then, before Dorsey even tries to answer him, he thrusts the tip of his boot under the man’s chin, as a warning.
“If your next word is not the one I want to hear, I'll make you swallow your teeth”, he informs him. One thing he doesn’t dislike about his costume is the look on his opponents’ faces when they look at him and see nothing but their own reflections. He doesn’t need this kind of tricks to make sure they believe him when he threatens them, but surely it doesn't hurt.
Dorsey licks his lips, then swallows down, evaluating the chances that the Red Hood could maybe be bluffing. He’s not. They all should know that by now.
“Dishna”, he whispers.
“Egypt, then”, the Red Hood says. It makes sense. They already have a small contingent of people looking for the asset there. Talia will be happy to know she was right: cowards and traitors, when they don't know where to go, they always go back home.
The rustle behind him warns him of what’s about to happen. He’s quicker than the old man this time, and he gets to knock Dorsey unconscious with a well placed kick before the batarang flies so close to his face it actually make a small cut into his neck.
He rolls on his feet and takes himself to the other side of the roof before standing up to face his old mentor.
“Good evening”, he salutes him, making sure to sound as sarcastic as possible. “There are nicer way to say ‘welcome home’, you know.”
He brings a hand to his neck and withdraws it covered in blood. Not much, but still enough to annoy him. He had pointed out the flaw of an uncovered neck under a full-face helmet several times: that strip of naked skin is practically an invitation to be beheaded, but his predecessor had retorted that no one else was ever supposed to wear that costume apart from him - he least of all. Stupid Todd.
“Did you kill him?”, Batman asks.
“Unless you’ve gone blind in your old age, I’m pretty sure you can see he’s still breathing”, he answers coolly. “And you can take him and tie him up with the others, if you want, I have no use for him anymore.”
Clearly distrustful of that immediate hand-over, Batman takes a step closer to him.
“Then why did you take him?”
“That’s none of your business, I’m afraid. He’s alive and I’m not going to fight you for him, it should be enough for you to be happy”, he retorts. “It's definitely an improvement compared to the last time we saw each other, Grayson.”
That makes Dick stop, physically and mentally: he can see it. It’s been years, yes, but they can still read each other so well, it’s frankly unnerving.
“Take off that helmet”, Batman says. “Please, Damian.“
Damian pretends that the please is what persuades him to comply. The truth is that he’s never liked the constriction of that stupid thing all over his face, dulling his senses and forcing him to rely only on its technology - and as advanced as the League had made it, he still doesn’t entirely trust anything outside himself. The truth may also be that, after all these years, he wants to look at Grayson with his own eyes, and maybe, at the same time, he wants Grayson to look at his real face.
“Take off that cowl”, he still demands in return.
Grayson hesitates, but only for a moment. He pushes the Batman’s mask back with a sigh almost as satisfied as Damian’s. Before this moment he had never considered the fact that now both of them are wearing a costumes they never wanted in the first place. The irony of a vigilantes life, Damian supposes.
There are grey strands in Grayson’s hair now, and wrinkles around his eyes. Damian’s surprised to see him so old, to find out that time has left such an evident mark on him. Not that he expected to find him identical to how he remembered him but… almost, maybe. Not so similar to Father, that’s for sure.
“You look just like Bruce”, Grayson says softly, mirroring his thoughts. “I mean, you look more like him than before. It’s scary.”
Jason and his mother use the word unsettling instead of scary, but they say it in the exact same way as Grayson.
“It's not a pride of mine”, Damian answers sharply. “And I'm sure the feeling is reciprocated.”
Dick shakes his head.
“He misses you”, he answers, almost smiling, and he uses that gentle voice that Damian knows so well. “And so do I.”
“The feeling is not reciprocated.”
Dick takes another step towards him.
“Don’t”, Damian warns him, and his brother stops again.
So many times Damian had wished for this moment, and so many times he had imagined a reconciliation that he was not possible, but, more than that, so many times he had feared that Grayson would never even try to make it happen. Knowing that he was wrong is a small victory he doesn’t intend to share, not even with Grayson himself.
“How’s Jason?”, Dick offers after a moment of quiet.
Damian shrugs, feigning indifference. He could lie, or say anything else, but he doesn’t see the reason to do hide something that’s not going to be a secret for more than a few days.
“Sitting on Grandfather’s throne, last time I checked.”
It's a pretty hard blow to take, but Damian has to admit that Grayson cashes it with a certain grace.
“Is it true, then?”, Dick only asks. “Is he the new Demon’s Head now?”
“That’s what my mother has decided.”
And what a conversation that had been. Damian had never seen Jason so angry or Talia more unyielding. A clash of titans indeed.
Richard looks at him like he wants to say something but can’t bring himself to do so. Maybe because he doesn’t want to hurt him, maybe because he knows it’s not his place anymore.
“Are you okay with it?”
“He’s the one who killed Grandfather”, Damian answers. “And I owe him enough not to kill him right away to take what's mine, at least.”
In truth he hasn't wanted his grandfather's throne since he was eight years old, but neither Grayson nor Todd need to know that, even if they had probably known even before Damian himself had realized it. He’d still like to keep both of them on their toes, if he can, and Talia would never forgive him for that unnecessary admission of abdication anyway.
Grayson doesn’t answer him right away, instead he kneels down next to Dorsey’s inert form and ties the man’s hands behind his back. He does it slowly, as if it were a difficult task that required a lot of his attention.
“Is it what you think?”, he asks eventually, when the last knots is tied, in a calm and almost curious tone. “That you owe Jason for what he did?”
Damian stiffens, immediately aware of the turn the conversation is going to take. This is what he had always wanted to avoid.
“He saved my life.”
“I know”, Dick answers.
“He saved my life when you and my father refused to.”
It hurts him to say it out loud. He hopes it hurts just the same for Richard to hear it.
Still on his knees, Dick looks up at him with a plea in his eyes.
“Don’t say it. We tried, kiddo. You ought to know that.”
Damian shakes his head, feels the sting of the cut on his neck and the deeper ache down in the pit of his stomach, that quiet rage that still tightens his throat like a knot on fire.
“You were never going to kill Ra’s”, he argues. “Neither one of you has ever even considered the idea.”
“That’s what you think.”
“That’s what I know”, Damian almost yell.
Grayson sits back on his heels, a position of surrender Damian doesn’t really want to see him in right now.
“Todd did what neither of you could”, he continues, cruel and honest. “And I owe him my life for it.”
Dick’s mouth twitches in a grimace that Damian is not able to identify. Could be guilt, could be anger, could be something else entirely.
“Is that what he told you?”, Dick asks.
Damian doesn’t like that implication at all.
“No. He never told me anything about it.”
It’s not completely true. It’s, in fact, a blatant lie. Jason had only spoken about it once, and Damian still remembers what he’d told him. It was his life or yours. It wasn’t a hard choice. And the simplicity of those words was the thing that had hurt him the most, at the time. Because he had known, right here and right there, that it was the same thing he would have done, and just as easily as Jason had done it, if it had been his choice, if it had been Richard’s, or Father’s, or even Todd’s or Drake’s life on the line. He would’ve killed for all of them, but only Jason would - and did - kill for him too.
And even at seventeen Damian had known that that limitations wasn't a proof that they didn't love him enough. They just loved him differently. But that only meant that the problem was not them but him, Damian, and how better solve it than by not leaving? Stay in the court where his Grandfather had dragged him, away from the family that had not come after him, claim the altar where his body had almost been sacrificed to the Demon’s Head glory as his own new throne. Back then it had made more sense to him than the idea to go back, like Jason had wanted him to.
So he’d stayed, and Jason had stayed with him, and Talia had made it work. And it had broke his heart to leave one family for the other, but he’d already learned oh so long ago that he could survive that particular pain, after all. And Talia was not Bruce, and Jason was not Richard, and Alfred was long gone by then, but Cassandra shows up at the new League’s quarters sometimes, and Drake and Brown still call him every now and then, and always, always, on his birthdays.
With Father and Richard there had been no other option but to cut ties, because anything else would’ve just hurt a lot more. And he had known from the very first time he had stolen Jason’s old Red Hood costume, that going around into the world with that helmet on his head was going to keep them away. He had wanted it. And that, he regrets sometimes. All these years gone by in silence, with this affection that still burns his anger to ashes. And all it took was seeing Batman once, for Damian to want to run into Dick’s arms just like he used to do as a kid, to want to see Bruce too, and to feel the warm weight of his father’s hand on his shoulder just one more time.
But a wish is only that, a whim of the imagination, and reality is quite a different thing.
Richard stands up and the Batman’s cape behind him twirls into the wind. Instinctively, Damian takes a step back.
“Stay”, Dick says, and it’s so out of the blue Damian almost believes he’s misheard.
“For the night”, Dick adds. “Let’s go home, Bruce will be so happy to-”
“I’m here on a mission”, Damian interrupts him. “And Gotham is not my home anymore.”
When Dick moves again Damian senses immediately what's about to happen. So he raises his hand to ask for one more moment of truce.
“If you try to stop me, we’ll have to fight”, he starts. “And whatever way it ends, I can promise it won't end the way you want it to.”
He can see the struggle behind Richard’s eyes, he can actually feel it like it were his own, and in some ways it is. Damian’s always had very few certainties in life, but Grayson’s love had always been one of those. He knows exactly how much his brother’s hurting right now, he knows what his instincts are yelling, what he wants to do, the things he wants to say. Because this fracture between them is not beyond repair, and they both know it. But what would a fight and then forgiveness bring at this point? Nothing but more pain.
And Dick knows this too, and that’s why he pulls the cowl back over his eyes.
“Say hello to Jason for me”, he says, as he lifts up the unconscious man over his shoulder.
“Will do”, Damian agrees.
He watches him jump then, and follows him with his eyes for a minute or two. It doesn't escape his attention that Batman doesn't tie up Dorsey with the other men - left in plain sight near their missed heist for the police to find - but that he pushes him inside of the Batmobile instead. Damian knows Grayson’s going to interrogate him, and he knows Dorsey will talk. It doesn’t matter. There’s no way they can stop them now, and ultimately, there’s no reason either for them to meddle with League’s business anymore.
He picks up the red helmet and pulls it over his head, hiding his face again.
It’s time to go back home.