Disclaimer: Batman and all associated comics are the property of DC comics. Events herein are drawn from the following issues: Batman, Inc. #8, Red Hood and the Outlaws #17. SPOILERS DO APPLY!
Author's Note: And with the reboot rearranged to my personal satisfaction, there is the other side of Two-Face's coin. Or how I suspect the triumphant return will actually occur in canon comics—belatedly, with loved ones moving on, a replacement on hand, and even more disturbing parallels to Jason Todd. *shrugs* I gave 'em a happy ending anyway.
"If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together…there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart…I'll always be with you."
-A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
Damian doesn't come back for years.
When he slides warily into civilization at the edges of Gotham, he finds a newsstand and checks the date. Over eleven years have gone by—Damian's been dead almost as long as he was alive in the first place.
He goes home in secret, watches first, and then sneaks in after Batman's patrol begins. He's able to confirm what the papers say; Batman has taken a new Robin. She's a bespectacled redhead with a love of cats that falls somewhere between Damian, himself, and Catwoman. There are no less than four felines wandering the manor and none of them are Alfred.
Titus is gone. Great Danes don't live long, and while Damian is unfamiliar with the life expectancy of bovine creatures, he imagines time is also at work in Batcow's barren corner of the Cave.
Damian heads upstairs and finds the family portrait still hanging over the fireplace, although the pictures along the mantle are mostly of the new Robin. Likewise, Damian's room has been left a shrine, and what was once the guest room across the hall now displays the various accoutrements of a teenage girl in tasteful greens.
Damian changes his clothing. He has to leave his Robin suit where it is—behind glass in the Cave and surrounded by other suits, other identities (Even Todd's Robin suit is laughably large in comparison). Father cannot know of his presence here, so Damian fetches civilian clothes. He packs a spare set in his never-before-used backpack, and rejects the decade-old toothbrush. His sketchbook is missing, and his I-pod, and his sword is conspicuous in its absence … but Damian's art supplies are where he left them, and so is the jacket that Damian had liberated from Drake's meager wardrobe.
Damian cannot stay here. He has been replaced.
He is dead, mourned and gone. He is worse than a Nobody.
Damian finds his bunker a shrine much like his bedroom, but different in one significant way. The bunker has quite clearly never been cleaned in the interim, and the shuriken that Damian had dropped (thrown) in his Joker-induced exile are still embedded in the dummy, the walls, the floor. He wonders if his father knew about Damian's frequent use of the bunker to begin with. He wonders why Grayson and Pennyworth never returned. Those are unanswered questions, and Damian turns to what he does have. In the bunker, Damian has more clothing, cash, and with a little work, even running water.
He conscientiously takes what is clearly an outdated laptop to the coffee shop on Paramour Avenue to do his research.
Barbara Gordon is perhaps the most conspicuous of Damian's allies in her new position as Commissioner. Her father passed away two years ago in service to Gotham. Damian hears the roar of Abuse on the streets and sees the silhouette of a new Batgirl in the air although this one has skin darker than his own and an infectious giggle. Some investigation finds various accounts of other allies—Super Girl is married and Mayor of Metropolis. Ravager has taken up an apprentice, while the girl Damian knew as Squire now goes by Knight.
Nowhere—even in the files stolen from the Bat Cave—is there any mention of the others. No current whereabouts of the estranged children of the Bat, no profiles of their lives for Damian's peace of mind, and no mention of any adventures in the various newspapers that Damian has taken to collecting.
Whispers of the Red Hood in the alley turn out to be just that—whispers of some monstrous faceless legend that never actually comes out to punish or save the unfortunate in Crime Alley. Damian can live with that; he finds the work satisfying and Batman seldom delves into this corner of the city now.
With some careful investigation and embarrassingly-persistent use of the facilities at Gotham's Public Library, Damian finds Pennyworth.
He does not approach the elderly gentleman.
No, Damian lurks behind convenient plastic foliage until the retired butler has returned the stack of books and made his new selections. Then he ducks the well-meaning librarian, tracks Pennyworth quietly back to the waiting car and makes note of the license plate number. It's just as easy to hack into the precinct's system as it was before. Now Damian has an address.
He finds both Alfred and Drake there. Well, part of Drake would be more accurate—perhaps even going so far as to call the frail man a shell of the human being that Red Robin once was. The cat would appear to be in perfect health; the man is irreparably damaged. He doesn't speak, he doesn't react, and he doesn't even try. Damian doubts his death could singlehandedly account for Drake's current state; his predecessor has been spiraling ever since the man's mid-teens.
It is clear that Pennyworth is performing the role of caregiver, and Damian wonders if a disguise would allow him to assist in a small way. Even helping the elderly man carry in groceries would alleviate some of Damian's guilt. But Damian refrains; Pennyworth is as sharp as ever and Damian cannot be found at this time.
He feels a little better when surveillance reveals Brown to be a weekly visitor. Sometimes she has a boy with her, a dark-haired boy maybe two or three years younger than Damian. Brown calls him 'Robbie' and Pennyworth brightens noticeably when the child is put into his charge while the blonde tends to Drake. For all of the child's acrobatic skill and clever antics, it is clear that Robbie shall never be the Robin for which he had clearly been named. The boy is too content.
Cain comes and goes freely—her visits can be as often as daily and then broken up by months of her absence. Like Brown, she assists Pennyworth with Drake's care. Todd is an infrequent visitor to the little house in the suburbs, and his scarring earns a visceral reaction from Damian. He had been there when these injures were inflicted, but Damian has never supposed them to be beyond repair. So on one level perhaps, the rumors are true.
Damian has decided to call himself thirteen by the time a year rolls by—he had been close enough to twelve years of age at the time of his death, and the years that he had missed should be accounted for in some way. He's spent the better part of that year living in an abandoned bunker with a few days here and there sleeping in the treehouse that belongs to one of Pennyworth's small neighbors. In that time, Damian has kept a careful watch on the outdoor activities of the suburban dwelling, and fostered a distant appreciation of the various adventures of Batman and Robin. His father clearly dotes on the new girl, and Damian is slowly coming to terms with that.
In his free time, Damian enjoys messing with the nightlife of Gotham while ensuring that no substantial evidence of his existence ever comes to light … mostly by thoroughly confusing the masses.
"I'm Batboy," he tells one criminal. "Call me Spoiler," he sneers at an unfortunate mugger. "Bond, James Bond," he deadpans when a girl much too old for him asks flirtatiously. "I'm Abuse," he whispers, affecting innocence as he stares up at sturdy enforcers who have clearly had run-ins with the more formidable stature of Colin's alter-ego. "Zorro rides again," he cackles from the shadows as he takes down the new Catwoman with her own whip.
The game gets more fun to play the longer Damian plays it. "I am the Night … Joker's here … Me, Tarzan—you, Jane … Superman … I'm the real Oracle." On nights when he is more daring—nights when he is thirteen, stupid, and invincible—he calls himself "Batman" and "Nightwing." "Black Bat" and "Scarlet" are chirped in the ears of undercover cops who certainly know better. "The Red Hood rises again," Damian screams over Crime Alley one night and watches the cockroaches flee in panic.
He's not Pit-mad, but something else.
Damian never calls himself Robin—never takes back the title of Redbird or admits to his one-time guise of Li'l Matches. And Damian never acknowledges the al Ghul side of his heritage.
He spits out names of super heroes, borrows from the pop culture that Grayson and Brown shoved down his throat, and maybe takes a few more cues from Todd than Damian would ever admit … but aside from the game, Damian plays it safe. He sticks to the shadows, he wears plain clothes over his survival suit, and he stays out of any district that has confirmed sightings of Batman or Robin. He puts out a whirlwind of aliases into the ears and minds of people too stupid to put it together. He lets himself be seen by only the people too unreliable to give credible account.
Grayson would call him a tease.
"… Harry Potter … Batwoman … Jackie Chan … Lex Luthor … Man-Bat … Commissioner Gordon … Prince Charming … the Phoenix …"
"Alexander the Great" leaves a sour taste on his tongue. He follows around a twitchy car thief one night whilst pretending to be the persistent stray tomcat attracted by the stains of chicken dinner down the other teen's shirt, and the ventriloquism of "Fluffy" is the best challenge that Damian's created for himself yet.
It's a game, and Damian is winning.
"Mockingbird" is the name that Damian gives when he's trapped by a quiet woman who could very well kill him. He has no idea where it came from, but it feels right and Damian repeats it: "Mockingbird."
He isn't afraid of the gun. He isn't afraid of death.
And Damian doesn't react when it is struck from her hand as a nerve-strike causes her to crumple towards the ground. "If I remember correctly, it's a sin to kill a Mockingbird," his rescuer comments as he steps into the light with the broad swath of red across his chest. Apparently, Nightwing is only partially retired these days.
Grayson chuckles, and then crouches to release Damian from the trap. He stays there, half-kneeling just below Damian's height and simply stares for a long moment. "I thought I was hallucinating at first. I didn't believe it was real, didn't want to believe it," the acrobat whispers, his eyes tracing Damian's unmasked face. "Then I thought it was a new game of Talia's. She's cloned you once before—who's to say that she can't do it again? Drop it off in Gotham to cause havoc and pain."
"She could have," Damian points out reasonably. "I could be."
"But you didn't go to B," Grayson counters. "You didn't come to me."
It tumbles out of his mouth before Damian can stop it: "I couldn't find you, idiot."
Grayson rocks back on his heel a second, and the small smile slips from his face as the bemusement faded into serious regard. Damian has no illusions—he has been defeated, broken, put back together sans important pieces. His close guard of his dignity is one of them. Damian waits wide-eyed for judgment to fall.
Unaccountably, Grayson shifts minutely and opens his arms.
Unaccountably, Damian falls into them.
He has been held like this before, clutched to a guardian's chest, stronger hands stroking his hair, and useless murmurings of comfort. He found it a patronizing gesture, constrictive, and suffocating even on the occasions where he wants the comfort that others derive from such acts—both longed for and dreaded in equal measure.
Now, Damian suspects that his former-partner's grip is the only thing holding all the pieces of Damian together. Now, Damian surrenders control and independence to larger shoulders, because Nightwing can handle them. His problems are Grayson's problems now and the man has never let him down before. Damian will follow wherever Grayson—Richard—leads.
He hangs on as Nightwing stands and redistributes Damian's weight comfortably. It does not matter that Grayson is flirting with his late-thirties or that Damian is thirteen years old (twelve years, ten months and twenty-eight days over the course of two lifetimes) and too big for this. Those trained by Batman are strong, and there would be no escaping Nightwing's grasp for days—perhaps weeks or months. Damian allows his brother to turn his head, press Damian's face into the older vigilante's neck and raise Damian's hood as the flashing lights of the authorities arrive.
"Just my baby brother," Nightwing excuses, redirecting the authorities to the unconscious damsel behind them. Damian can feel the weight of the Commissioner's gaze as Nightwing leans casually back against the patrol vehicle. "Calls himself, Mockingbird," the older vigilante continues, stroking Damian's back. "Cute, smart, good to have on your side in a fight … but I should probably get him back home."
Gordon leans in close, close enough that she can make out the profile of Damian's face in the red and blue light. She reaches up to stroke his hair once in a careful testing gesture that Damian will allow just this once (will always allow), and squeezes Damian's shoulder. "It's good to have you back, Mockingbird," she murmurs before handing her keys to Dick. "Take the car."
"I suppose the time has come to inform Father," Damian sighs. "And the others of course. They should know too." Grayson settles him in the passenger seat, and runs a hand through his hair once more. "We will need to summon Pennyworth. He should return my cat." It makes his brother laugh, and Damian waits a beat. "I shall never be rid of you lot now."
"Never," Grayson confirms.
Damian has heard it said that "never is an awfully long time," but it is Damian Wayne's opinion that "never" will never be long enough.