"no universe like that which bleeds"
Genre: Angst, Family
Time Frame: Pre-TDKR
Characters: Ra's al-Ghul | Henri Ducard/Melisande, Talia al-Ghul/Bane
Summary: It was a familiar story, that of the mercenary and the warlord's daughter . . .
Notes: Because my last chapter for "where a blade was sunk some time ago" gave me lots of Ra's feelings that I needed to work my way through. Really, Nolan's whole interpretation of this character fascinates me, and I wanted to get a few of my thoughts onto paper. And then, seeing as how my latest chapter for WaBWSSTA is giving me attitude right now, it seemed a good idea to work on something a little different to give my muse a breather - I've become so used to writing Talia's voice that this was quite a fun exercise in the end. So, this is the happy result of my experimentation – a quick viggie to tide you guys over until I can churn an update out, and some added Ra's feelings to boot.
For those not familiar with "where a blade was sunk some time ago", know that reading that beast is not necessary to read this oneshot, and anyone new to my 'verse for these characters, I welcome you, and hope you enjoy your stay. ;)
As always, I humbly thank you guys for taking the time to read my work, and I hope you enjoy. :)
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words.
"there is no space wider than that of grief,
there is no universe like that which bleeds"
~ Pablo Neruda, "Furies and Sorrows"
The wound was long and deep, but it looked worse than it truly was. Even if it had been anything more than superficial, the gash was not the first such mark he had borne in her name, and he doubted that it would be the last.
And yet -
"You foolish, foolish man," was the hissed rebuke from his wife, falling from her lips to land on his ears like a blow.
He winced at her chagrin more than the sting of her pushing the cold compress against the gash that ran from his shoulder, down the inside of his arm. At least, that was what he told himself. He was Henri Ducard; keeper of an ancient name and power, who with one hand knew an uncountable dozens of ways to take from a man his final breath – who had done so, at that, an uncountable dozen upon a dozen times.
And yet Melisande (wife, other half, whole) could bring him low with just a cross look and a raised brow. It was the equilibrium of the universe, Henri reflected, his thoughts swimming muddily. After a heartbeat, he decided to blame the philosophical turn of his mind on the blood loss.
The woman before him was a small thing – all thin wrists and a body that curved like a rib bone. Not accounting for the slightness of her body, her eyes were colored like a fine brandy, large and dark enough to swallow the sea. But now they snapped like a snake's bite, withering in time to the sharp edge of her tongue. She was all desert bronzed skin and night dark hair, and if he focused on that, the throbbing from his arm wasn't quite as bad as she was painting it out to be.
Yes . . . the blood loss, he reflected - quite.
Because, really, this was not the first time she had seen him bruised and bloodied in her name, even if it was the first time she had insisted on helping him deal with the aftermath. The hurt had been dealt from some failed assassin's blade, inflicted when he had blocked a worse blow to somewhere more vital on his chest with his arm. The gash was a small price to pay, taking the pain in all of its intensity and pushing it aside in order to bring his sword wielding arm around to do away with the would-be-assailant's head. Henri had considered it a good trade at the time.
Melisande, on the other hand . . .
"You're not immortal," she said, the left corner of her mouth hooked by her ire. Her accent dipped with her irritation, the syllables became thick with her feeling, and he could not help but smile at the sound from her lips - which was not the wisest thing to do, he reflected, when she was irritated as such, and holding the needle to the cleaned wound to stitch it closed. "Perhaps," she continued, "it would be best if you stopped trying to put yourself between me and every perceived harm -"
"I was hired for your express protection," Henri still saw fit to point out. "I would be remiss in my duties indeed if I were not to uphold them to the best of my abilities."
Her stare was withering, even as he saw the light threatening to break from her eyes. Fear then fueled her words, more so than anything truly cross, he decided. Softly, Melisande sighed. "You manage to take my father's wishes into mind at the most inopportune times, ya maalik qalbi."
Her first tug on the needle was sharp. Her thumb followed the stitch she made in his flesh, soothing the small hurt with an unconcious motion. He looked down, following the easy dexterity of her fingers, tracing the curve of her knuckles and the rounded point of her nails as they danced, rather than focusing on the raw and wounded flesh beneath her touch. It was easier that way.
His breath was deep in his lungs. Across from him, Melisande exhaled, growing more confident with her ability to knit flesh rather than cloth with every passing stitch.
"Does it hurt very much?" she finally asked, her voice pulling as concern bubbled forth past her ire – the latter all the more potent for the first.
"It will pass," he said rather than answering outright.
She raised a brow, but did not comment on his dodging her question. "I doubt that this was what my mother had in mind when she taught me to use a needle," Melisande's smile pulled as she tried to shade her actions with humor. "But perhaps something practical will finally come of her lessons. Here – do not look so closely at my needle, Henri, it can't be well for you to do so. Shut your eyes, and speak to me. Take your mind off of my task."
"What do you wish for me to say?" he asked amicably, leaning forward so that he rested his forehead against his shoulder. He did not close his eyes, but he no longer watched her as she went about her task. He could smell the perfumed wash of her hair, the sensation as smooth as silk to his skin where he had known steel and sand and the grime of adrenaline and presperation the whole of the day before. He inhaled, the sweetness of her so very preferable to the remembered scent of blood, the metallic taste of copper and salt that still coated his mouth . . .
"Tell me," she said thoughtfully, her voice a low hush, "Tell me of the world past my father's house . . . Tell me, again, of where we will go when we leave this place."
"The forests of the north?" he questioned lightly. "Or the ocean to the south? The mountains so far east from here, tall enough that they seem to pierce the very heavens themselves?"
"Anything other than the sands," Melisande teased. "I find myself quite tired of the desert." A moment passed. He felt as her needle passed through his skin, her thumb following the wound as she worked. "The mountains," she finally decided, leaning forward so that she could more closely observe her work. He could feel her breath against his skin.
"The mountains then," he whispered. "Their peaks are so high that you can't see them above the clouds, no matter how far you may crane your head to see. The air is thin, but sweet and cold, and the snow on the slopes is thick and untouched beneath your feet. It's pure, glittering silver and blue in the sunlight, untouched where no other has walked before you . . ."
"Snow," Melisande marveled on a low breath. "Now that I very much look forward to seeing. I must find out for myself if what you say is true."
In a land where even the rains were rare, Melisande had not believed him when he had tried to explain to her a winter season. In all of his travels, Henri still marveled that there were parts of the world as ancient and untouched as hers. It was what had drawn him here in the first place - he was a man from some forgotten part of the world, who had fought in many countries - for many names and peoples and places, always looking for something more - purpose and meaning. In the sands he had not been looking for direction in his life; not any more, but had found it anyway, like dying men often did in such places, turning to illusions to slake their thirst.
He closed his eyes as she hummed in the back of her throat, tying off the last stitch with a careful hand. "But I need you alive if I am ever going to see these mountains of yours," she breathed as she turned in closer to him. He obliged her by wrapping his arms around her, mindful of the work she had done to his arm. The pain there was becoming more acute as the adrenaline of the day wore off and stillness of healing instead set in. He winced when he thought about how he would feel upon the morning hour, but resolved not to think about that now.
"I will do my best," he whispered instead into her hair, not sharing his darker turn of thoughts with her.
"I will not be pleased if I have to stitch you up again so soon," she said, trying to hold a bit of her earlier ire in her voice, but failing. Her hands could not keep still on the arms that held her. She caressed what skin she could reach, as if to assure herself that he was real and whole before her - that the villain of the day had not taken him from her.
He breathed in at the concern in her voice – at the care. He half smiled, unseen by her. "I will do my best to come back hale and whole. I promise."
"See that you do," was the last she said on the matter for the night. She tilted her head, her nose held high in the air with all of the aristocratic bearing she could muster. "Now, tell me more about these mountains of yours, Henri Ducard," she commanded imperiously, a smile in her voice as she spoke. "I wish to paint a picture of them in my mind."
"As the lady commands," Henri said past a laugh. "Now, living on the slopes of the mountain, the people are hearty and hard, and they make a particularly fine tea with yak's butter that I think you will enjoy . . ."
Beyond the walls of the monastery, the winds blew through the canyons like a daemon on the hunt.
Through the strong walls, he could feel as the storm beyond battered the shutters and scrapped against the tiles of the roof. There was a musical sound to the long corridors as the torches shook ever so slightly in their holders. Their flames threw dancing patterns across the floor, shadows and light both flickering in time to the storm's might.
A reflection of the turbulence beyond, Ra's al-Ghul was restless that night, prowling through the silent halls of his domain without aim or destination, much as the wind did on the mountainside beyond. There was a chill in the air that night; he doubted it would warm until the sun showed its face once more.
After some time, he knew not how much, his steps brought him to the sound of voices, coming from the training rings, empty at this time of night. He prowled around the balcony that circled the great space below - the room the largest in the monastery besides the dining hall and his throne room. His steps were soft and silent as he kept to the shadows above, drawn by the movement below.
When he drew close enough, it was a familiar voice he heard rising from below; arching and imperious, with curved vowels and drawled syllables. The voice of Talia al-Ghul was one every man in the monastery knew well, whether it was spoken in challenge or orders given. A few fortunate souls like Ubu were graced with her friendship and humor; and an unfortunate few - Ra's himself included, knew her quick tongue and her debating mind, her endless questions and quick calculations. Without the face of his daughter before him, he could almost imagine that was Melisande speaking as such below, so alike was the girl to her mother . . . in more ways than one.
His hands clenched. They made fists. He breathed in deeply, and then exhaled. Slowly, he let his fingers uncurl.
"Hold still," he heard the command clearly from his place in the shadows, the words a hiss of annoyance from her lips.
"I did not move," was the rumbled reply, the man's voice a deep baritone to shadow Talia's own dusky timbre. Ra's' fisted hands return at the sound of him, the knowledge that his daughter – once again – was not alone.
"Yes, you did," was the distracted return from Talia, "Now, hold still."
Carefully, Ra's came closer to the edge of the shadows, looking down to where his daughter and her pet beast sat on one of the thin wooden benches lining the training rings below. Talia was still swathed in black, armor creaking at her elbows and knees from where she had returned with Ubu from a mission in Kanpur earlier that evening. She was a small thing in comparison to the massive form of Bane – the strongman thrown as a distorted shadow from her fae like limbs, all hulking bones and lines of steel about his face where Talia was like colored glass before him. Ubu had spoken well of each of their performances while away – Talia excelling with her words as well as her twin blades, and Bane's ferocity, as always, a mark of credit to the League and its training.
Even still, Ra's felt a sour taste rise in his mouth - one that had been brewing in the pit of his stomach ever since Talia had cornered him into retrieving her friend from the Pit those three years ago, and was rising ever more pungent in his throat more and more often as of late.
Like some mythological beast in thrall to an enchantress' touch, Bane was sitting quiet and sedate before his daughter, the sleeve of his shirt rolled back so that Talia could attend to the rather long gash that the strongman bore on his forearm. Talia was working quickly and easily in the face of blood and torn flesh, and her hands at the sewing needle had as much nimble ease as she bore with pen or blade – each a credit to the blood running untamed through her veins.
For a moment Ra's watched, and felt the force of memory strike upon him like the storm winds on the monastery around them.
"That is not holding still," Talia said next, her voice matter-of-fact, even though Ra's had seen no movement from the masked man. In the silence of the cavernous room around them, his breath came low and hissing from the confines of his mask. The unnatural sound was a discordant note against the storm beyond.
"I told you, I feel no pain," the strongman replied, his voice level, fond and amused. It is a soft tone, even though it should not have been, mechanical and rasped through vents and poison as it was. "You need not attend to me."
Talia snorted. She had heard his lie. "You are numb, my friend, from the venom in your veins - but if you move, you shall ruin my stitches. They will not be even, and then I shall be cross."
"Then I shall endeavor to be still," Bane finally gave, and Talia's laugh in return was soft, musical almost. For that moment alone she sounded like a girl of her tender years. Gone was the gleam of naked steel in her eyes, of an imperishable flame in her veins – and Ra's was not the only one to hear it as so. The masked man was looking on the daughter of the Demonhead as if she were air and breath and life itself, and Ra's felt that old uneasiness – like warning, multiply a hundredfold. It was not a new look to Ra's experience, not by any means, having had looked upon a woman himself in much the same way . . . even if she was long lost to him now.
Around him, the shadows flickered, they lengthened and twined. In his mind, Ra's was joined by a ghost, a specter more indomitable than even the mountain under his feet.
She is happy with him, was Melisande's voice in his mind, soft and pointing. Who are you to judge that for right or wrong, my dear?
A masked mercenary, he snorted. It is what every father wants for their daughter.
He could see Melisande's raised brow in his mind - the turn of her lips and the force of her stare as she sighed. Hypocrite, her eyes accused, and Ra's felt an all to familiar ire rise within him at the word.
But this is different, he wanted to protest. The work that the League did was noble, its cause just. Ra's al-Ghul had pulled them all from the shadows, had given them aim and purpose when they had nothing left to them, even themselves. Henri Ducard had been a weak man - a man left lost and reeling in the days after his wife's death. That time had been a black stain in his life, one he had only risen above thanks to the Shadows and their cause.
The knowledge that Melisande had brought his freedom from her father's wrath with their separation had been the source of his hate and determination all of those years ago. But then, to return in force to the Warlord's city to level it to the ground, and have her father laugh and say that she had died in the months of his absence, that she was gone, had been a blow that had left him reeling. And then, years later, to be found by a daughter, hardened by a life she never should have known . . . a daughter who said that his wife had not died . . . That he had been played a fool by a vindictive and cruel man who wished to inflict one last pain with his dying words . . . Who had said that Melisande had taken his place in hell on earth, and raised a daughter in that hell, all at the cost of her own life when she had fallen to the prison's powerplay and sick lusts . . .
There were not words to describe what he had felt the first time he had found Talia in that Chinese prison – recruited as many of their Shadows were. He had thought the girl's existence, her stories and her claims, to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. But to look at her, and to see Melisande's face . . . but so coldly set, as if she had known every horror the world had to offer . . .
He still did not know what to do with the worldliness in her eyes, a hardness so like his own - a hardness that would only fade, clear for mere moments, whilst in the company of him . . .
A man who wears his scars for our daughter's sake, still Melisande whispered in his mind. A man who bid her rise where every other said to her, 'fall'.
His hands clenched. As I was not there to, he whispered in reply. That knowledge was the ultimate stain on his heart, the ultimate failure to his name – for all of his talk of bringing balance to the hurt and aching earth, all of his endeavors to wreak out justice to the reeling masses of the world - as the League had done for centuries . . . and he had not been able to care for those he held dearest to him.
He had failed.
No, was the whispered promise in his mind. You do yourself a disservice, Henri. You could have done no more than you did. But his own memories of his wife could not give him the absolution he sought. Someday, perhaps, he would meet Melisande beyond the circles of the world, and he would beg her forgiveness. But that time was far off from the days he lived out now, his blood old and tired in his veins. He opened his eyes, and again the shadows around him were empty. Once more, Melisande was nothing but a treasured thought in his memories.
He inhaled. He let the breath out deep.
"There, good as new," he heard the satisfied proclamation from his daughter below. "Do have a care to not extend yourself too much in the next few days, lest the stitches break."
"So I am commanded, so I shall obey," was the reply from her masked shadow, the words strangely formal and weaving - always such a oddity from the mouth who spoke them.
"See that you do," Talia grinned, and Ra's glanced down in time to see the haughty curve of her neck, the playful glint of her eyes – every inch of her a queen ordering about a favoured knight. For a moment the resemblance to her mother was acute. It hurt to breathe.
"Now, I wish to get out of this armor, and then I will sleep for a week," Talia said as Bane helped her to her feet, her weight such a slight thing for him to support, injured arm or no. "Walk me to my room?" she leaned into the mass of him as they departed, his strength her own as they walked from the shadows around them.
As they passed, Ra's came closer, and for a moment – a brief moment, Talia's eyes found his own in the darkness. While her face was her mother's, her eyes were his own – as icy and cold as the glacier lakes on the eastern slopes. They hardened for a moment – a challenge, only ever standing between them where the other was concerned, and for now, Ra's inclined his head in a truce between them as Talia threaded her arm through that of her companion, for all the world looking like she would challenge the mountain's own strength for her place at his side.
And Ra's had not the will to fight her that night.
Instead he turned, and left by the opposite way, the shadows parting and giving him passage for their ranks. For a moment, the ghost of his wife lingered, a sad glow to her eyes, before turning and falling into the shadows at his side.
ya maalik qalbi: Arabic for 'possessor of my heart.'