Author's Note: The Young Justice fic I promised you all is up. It's called 'Lights of Gotham' over in the YJ section, but I also wanted to try something else. In researching and writing 'The Changeling' I became completely fascinated with the character of Talia al Ghul, a woman so full of contradictions, I had to go through almost every appearance of hers in the comics and the animated series to even begin to understand her. So naturally I had to try and write a story where she'd play a bigger role than she had in the start and end of my last story. Thus, 'Deluge in the Wasteland' was born. In this story, I'm making a few assumptions and allowances.
* My primary influence for the way I write Talia is 'Son of the Demon', the first few issues of 'Red Hood – The Lost Days', her brief appearance in 'No Man's Land', and in the animated series. Though I know he's considered the end-all-and-be-all of Batman these days and while I do like some of his work, I highly disapprove of what Grant Morrison did to her.
* That being said, in none of my stories is Damian a test tube baby or basically the product of rape. I'm going to consider 'Son of the Demon' canon for my purposes. This takes place two months after. I am assuming that Talia hid the fact that she was still pregnant from everyone. Not only Bruce, but Ra's as well.
* Marring this with the regular continuity, I'm going to assume that this takes place a little after Bruce finds Jason. That is, Jason is about 11-12. He's lived in the manor for a few months but is not fully integrated and is not yet Robin. Dick is Nightwing, off in college and/or with the Teen Titans.
* Because this is prior to Jason's murder and because 'Son of the Demon' is canon for this – and my other – story, Bruce might come off a little softer. It's generally agreed that his turn towards the darker persona happened at least partially as a result of Jason's murder, so it's not there yet. At the same time, since this is comic-verse Bruce and Jason just got there, we might also see some less-than-amazing parenting at first (for those of you who are used to me writing great-dad!Bruce) because it was Jason he made so many mistakes with.
Deluge in the Wasteland
By: Silver Spider
She was Talia al Ghul, daughter of the Demon. She kowtowed to no one and nothing, which earned her both respect and a healthy amount of fear among allies and enemies alike. She commanded armies without hesitation. She was smart, powerful, and capable... and she was a coward.
Not that she let the fear show. All the servants and soldiers saw was a shorter fuse which they swiftly steered clear of. Her father, though unaware of the full natures of her distress, could see enough to know that she wished to be left alone and comply. She suspected he just didn't want to deal with what he must have thought as a woman's foolish emotions. He must have thought it was nothing more than a broken heart, that it would pass in time.
Talia was not so sure. At the very least she knew it would not be anytime soon. A heart broken by ones' own hand was not easily mended. One day she might return to 'normal', but now even the hot desert sun did nothing to help her swiftly paling complexion. The lack of appetite that only she knew the true source of left her weak. It was more than physical; she could feel herself wither inside.
It was a servant with a tray of food. They came like clockwork with every meal and usually retrieved the tray an hour later with most of the food untouched.
She didn't bother turning. "Leave it."
The serving woman bowed, set the tray on the table by her bed, bowed, and departed. When the door closed, she glanced at the tray. The melon slices, oranges, and assortment of nuts might have been an option of they were not so close to the hardboiled egg that smelled so vile to her, she had to fight the urge to call the woman back and have the whole thing removed from her room. Of course she couldn't do that, couldn't raise suspicion.
Pushing the glass doors wide open, she stepped out onto the balcony. At the very least, the cool morning air helped curb some of the nausea, and the sounds and sights of the desert calmed her. It was so much more alive than anyone imagined. So early in the morning she could still hear the creatures that scurried about outside, nearly ready to find shelter from the coming day's unforgiving sun. Talia wanted to hide as well, but wasn't that what she was doing? Maybe she was hiding from the wrong person.
She'd had this thought every single day since she'd let him go, pushed him away, really. Had it been the right choice? Was there any right choice? Had she wanted him to protest, to fight with her and tell her he wouldn't leave? Would that have changed her decision? Would he have been happy if he stayed? So many questions... She wished she had even a single certain answer.
The problem, of course, was that she was a coward. She thought she could make this decision for the two – the three – of them completely on her own. She'd been so sure what she was doing was for the best.
In the beginning, she'd been sure. So very sure...
But now every fiber of her being screamed at her that she was wrong, the loneliness and pain of keeping her secret all but consuming. She knew there were good reasons to try to ignore these feelings, but they washed over her in waves, and Talia didn't know if she could ride them out before the end. She felt as if she was drowning, and the only source of air was thousands of miles away.
Just one breath...
It might sustain her in the coming months. The servants would not question, and her father was away. In any case, it was not out of character for her to disappear to the states for months at a time on her own business. As long as she checked in every once in a while, he would give her free reign with few questions. Either way, she would have to withdraw from sight sooner than later. What did it matter if she spent the last week or so in Gotham?
The crème satin gown swished on the marble floor as she turned towards the door.
Her mind was made up, and, really, there was no harm. No one would know the truth... including her beloved.
There were times – terrible times that he didn't care to dwell on – that Bruce thought that maybe this was a mistake. It wasn't when the boy failed a drill or puzzle or when he argued with him. God knew Dick had done all of the above and then some. No, Jason didn't have the drilled ease of a trained acrobat, but skills would come with practice and time. Those were not the things that made him think twice.
What made him think twice were moments when the boy seemed so distracted, so lost within his own mind, that when Bruce finally got through, he'd blink and stare at him uncomprehendingly as if he'd just missed the last ten minutes of the conversation. Or when he'd wake up screaming in the middle of the night and then pretend nothing was wrong. Alfred had told him he'd washed sheets so saturated with sweat they could practically be wrung out.
It wasn't like Dick. Dick had done everything right; went to therapy when he was young, talked to his friends when he was older. Jason refused to talk about anything from his past to anyone, Bruce, Alfred, or the well-meaning, but ill-prepared school guidance councilor. For Dick, the death of his parents had been the one thing to manage, to learn to cope with, whereas Jason's entire life up until Bruce found him was nothing but a long string of traumatic events.
Maybe that was why he kept delaying giving him the Robin suit; no matter how badly Jason wanted it, Bruce was hoping to avoid more trauma. There were times when he wondered if the boy would be better off someplace else...
…now was not one of those times.
Only seconds after pulling into the cave from patrol, he was greeted with the biggest smile he'd ever seen on the child as soon as the car door opened. Jason, rumpled hair, pajamas, bare feet and all, was practically bouncing. And time like this Bruce had absolutely no doubts, because seeing Jason so happy was one of the very few things that gave him a true sense of joy. Still, he put on a half-hearted stoic look.
"You should be sleeping." Bruce pushed back the cowl and looked.
"I know, I know. I was. Just heard the car come in."
He raised a brow, getting out of the car. "You must be a very light sleeper, if you heard it from all the way upstairs."
Almost instantly he winced inwardly. He knew Jason was a light sleeper. Survival instincts and a healthy amount of paranoia from life in the East End had made him this way. Luckily, the boy didn't seem to notice the ill-placed quip. He rolled his eyes at Bruce as if to say, "Have you seen the engine on this thing?" and grinning, held up a piece of paper for his inspection.
He did and smiled. "An A- in math. That's very good."
"I know!" The boy beamed.
What little he managed to obtain of Jason's school records when the fostering was finalized a few months ago showed that he'd rarely gotten anything higher than Cs. It wasn't because he was stupid – far from it – but the circumstances of Jason's earlier life in the dingy little apartment above Crime Alley had left him with little time or means to study. Now that he was in a safe environment and with a tutor as dedicated as Alfred – and Bruce himself when time permitted – his true aptitude came out.
He got out of the car. "How was the English lit test?"
Jason visibly wilted. "Umm... math was better?"
The problem with Jason was that he did well on subjects he found worthy of his attention. Math was useful, and so were the sciences. Jason could link them to things Bruce taught him about detective work and crime scene investigation. He also had an amazing knack for civics almost immediately, and when asked, Jason had explained that he had to know the legal system in case he ever got in trouble and had to find a way to beat it. Bruce had no idea how he felt about that answer.
So what was wrong with English lit? If you were twelve-year-old Jason: everything.
"You can't keep doing this," Bruce sighed. "I know you don't like it, but find a way to get through it without Fs. Preferably without Ds or Cs, too."
The boy's earlier jovial expression wilted. "I thought you'd be happy about the math..."
"I am, but I'd be even happier if you weren't failing English lit."
The hand that was holding the math exam drooped along with Jason's smile. Sensing that he'd just done something nearly unforgivably damaging, Bruce pulled off the gloves and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, gently guiding him towards the exit of the cave.
"It's okay," he promised. "We'll work on it. Find some kind of approach you like."
Jason humphed. "Right. Like there's a point to some random words by a bunch of dead guys."
"You'd be surprised. I heard some amazing stories when I traveled."
Jason quirked a brow at him. "You mean when you disappeared for like... a month?"
Another inward wince. He had absolutely not meant to do that, especially not so soon after Jason's arrival at the manor, before the boy could even start to get used to life there. But then the business with Ra's and Qayin came up, and then Talia... The loss of that life – both literal and figurative – had been painful. Not so painful as to be unbearable, but sometimes he thought about what it might have been like to have her with him now, to look forward to holding their baby when it was born. He'd already been thinking of what to tell Alfred and especially Jason, but sadly the need never arose.
Maybe it was for the best. His conflict with Ra's had been put on temporary hold when they teamed up against Qayin, but at the end of the day their differences were irreconcilable. They would forever be enemies, and Talia and their child would have gotten caught in the crossfire. It was better this way...
He almost believed it.
Jason seemed no happier in the morning as he got ready for school despite the fact that it was Friday. If anything, his mood was more melancholy, unbrightened by Alfred's chocolate chip pancakes that he kept stabbing with an unnecessary amount of force. It didn't help that the butler was giving Bruce a look that clearly meant he should be doing something about this. He just wished he knew what that was supposed to be.
"Are you prepared for the party tonight?" Alfred asked the boy in an attempt to make conversation. "Your tuxedo is pressed and ready."
Bruce raised his coffee cup to hide any giveaway that he'd almost forgotten himself. At least it was a charity instead of another investor's meeting in disguise. Charities he'd dress up for and – however reluctantly – play the role of playboy billionaire. Jason groaned.
"Do I have to?"
Bruce and Alfred exchanged a look. The charity was supposed to be a good opportunity to formally introduce Jason to the public, after months of rumors and speculations. The boy had argued but finally resigned himself to the fact that this new life came at the cost of slicked back hair and starch-drenched tuxedos every once in a while. Still, maybe now was not the best time to push that particular point.
"I think I can handle this one on my own," Bruce finally said. "If you want to stay home tonight, you can. But go over that lit exam with Alfred. That's the deal."
"Fine," Jason made a face. "Better than prancing around all those suits."
When he went upstairs to finish getting ready for school, Bruce turned to Alfred. "Tell me what I'm doing wrong."
He hadn't expected a laundry list, though it would have probably made it easier. A checklist of problems and solutions was simple, had a beginning and end, and could be attacked methodically till completion. Much like a case. His oldest friend gave him a pained look.
"What was your very first thought just now, Master Bruce?"
That this was so much easier with Dick...
Ouch! He glanced up at Alfred. "I see your point."
The old man looked at him sympathetically. "No two children are the same, least of all in the way they respond to tragedy. They are both incredibly resilient, yes, but Master Richard and Master Jason could not be more different. Neither are you the same as you were years ago."
"I just..." He didn't know why he felt the need to defend himself when clearly he was in the wrong. "I want him to do well. Not just in training, but in general, in life. Is it really so bad for me to insist he doesn't fail classes?"
"Certainly not, but it would not hurt to be a bit... gentler about it."
Bruce sighed. "Alright. Noted. I have to go to Wayne Tower today. I'll... I'll try to talk to him before this party. At least he got out of that. Can I get out of that?"
Now Alfred was looking at him as if he was the child. "No, Master Wayne. You do have a reputation to uphold, and there are certain to be many lovely ladies."
"I'm so excited." Propping his chin on the heel of his hand, he brought the fork hard into the pile of pancakes. Maybe Jason was onto something with this idea of taking out aggression on one's breakfast.
She slept through at least two thirds of the fifteen hour flight, but despite that and her otherwise excellent physical shape, Talia felt like she'd just gone hand to hand with twenty of her father's best soldiers. Straightening in her seat as the plane began its descent, she looked out the window at the city below as it was lit up by the early morning sun. It was not unlike the desert; so full of both life and death. From here it seemed to shine, no traces of the corruption and decay she knew to be there.
From here she could see why he loved it.
Stepping off the plane and into the busy airport, she pulled the small suitcase – she wouldn't be staying long, after all – to her side and turned her wrist to check the delicate silver watch. Eight in the morning. There was plenty of time to make it to her loft in one of the city's more affluent districts, maybe get a little more rest, and make herself presentable. There was a Wayne Foundation charity event tonight that would serve as an opportunity to reconnect.
An hour later, glancing out at Wayne Tower only blocks away and the rest of the city from the full-length windows of her loft, she laid out the dress, shoes, and other accessories for the evening's festivities. Only the jewelry was left. Talia looked at the dresser where a wooden box lay open, revealing the ornate necklace that made her breath catch every time she looked at it.
Pointedly closing the lid, she chose a simple pendant of white gold instead.