A/N: Hello m'dears… I hope the week has been a good one for you!
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"I'm a mess here, Rae," I tell her in a fractured whisper.
I feel more than hear the tiny sigh she releases. I figure she's about to tell me that my misery is my own damn fault, point out that if I hadn't asked her to marry me, and that if I'd just retracted the proposal like she'd urged me to do, everything would be all hunky dory between us. Yeah, she's totally wrong and I wait with baited breath just to tell the daft woman that. Then Raya tips her head against my chest and surprises me by saying, "Then let's be a mess together, Dick."
Okay, so maybe her spending a night off with Tim and Conner has actually turned out to be a good thing...
Well, good thing for her, and probably Tim and Kon as well. Damian on the other hand is going to hold this over both their heads for the rest of their lives. Personally? I get why Raya asked Conner to take her to Tim's. He's her brother. Same as he's my brother. But we've always accepted Tim as a member of our family. Damian, on the other hand has seen him as his enemy from the first moment he met him. Tim allowing Raya to take refuge at his place while she works through how to handle me and the situation I've created is tantamount to being a traitor in our little bird's eyes. It's another mark against Tim. And a major point of contention between mama and baby bird. Just then I think I hear the soft grinding of the secret elevators gears as the conveyance is called into service, but I am too invested in having Raya in front of me finally to pay it much mind. That Bruce would retreat to the Cave doesn't surprise me all that much. I'd love to tell you that he left us alone as a sign of respect for our privacy. To a certain degree, that is true. However, Bruce also doesn't handle emotional conflicts well.
Google Batman and insane rage mode and you'll see just how well he tends to handle his emotional conflicts.
And as much as he'd deny it if you asked him? He hates seeing me and Raya at odds more than Damian does. We are his first foundlings. We are the closest to him-even though he and I spend a lot of time at odds with each other. We're the ones he let inside his heart and world and who he allowed to make the Dark Knight's life just a little less bleak. We're also the ones who can, and have, hurt him the most. Don't think that Bruce doesn't love Jason, Tim, Cass or Damian as much as he does us. He does. We're just his first. And we're special to him for that reason.
"What can I do, Rae?" I finally ask her. "What can I say that is going to convince you to marry me?"
"Dick..." I feel her whisper against my shoulder.
"Just say yes or no," I entreat her. "Will you marry me?"
I figure she's gonna balk, again, at my asking her to marry me. I assume she's gonna make me squirm just a little bit as payback for the hell I've put her through. Making me dangle just a bit longer on the line before finally giving me an answer one way or another is so totally her version of payback. When she merely tucks her head under my chin without uttering one word, I know she's feeling pretty frazzled. Normally, I'd use this bit of disquiet to my advantage. The more unsettled Raya is, the more likely it is that you can get her to talk truthfully about her feelings.
I've already told you that Raya's a stubborn woman. But yanno what? Her will is what helps her survive the day-to-day nightmares our lives can become. See, normal people would look at what we contend with and run the other way. It is what any sane person would do. We don't do that, though. We buckle down, toughen up and face the challenges presented to us. It's how Bruce taught us to be. It's how he taught us to act. It's how he taught us to think. And as much as I absolutely hate admitting it?
We're both just like him.
All six of us are like him in some way, actually. We had the same teachings, heard the same lessons, we were taught and practice the same set of skills. The only difference here is that Raya and I have mentored with him the longest. We've got bits of Bruce that the others missed out on thanks to the Joker. However, the emotional side of the coin? Not being able to talk about our feelings? That's not his doing. It's ours. It's how we have learned to deal with the traumas that have been inflicted upon us.
She doesn't say anything for a couple of agonizing minutes. I half imagine the silence to be her response to my question. Be just like the little minx to respond that way. But then I feel her stir, feel her shift and settle more against me. Even before I feel them, I know her hands are going to drift beneath my t-shirt. I can imagine her touch long before I feel those elegant fingers stroke over my skin. Prickles of heat pool in my belly and spread outwards to the rest of my body. With every glide, every touch, and every whisper of her skin upon mine I can feel my nerves shiver and sigh. Every muscle quivers. And every ounce of my tension melts away. Everywhere she touches hums with pleasure. I admit it, I've missed this. I've been craving this, in fact. Raya tends to connect with the people she cares about through touch. It's something she's always done. Yet, the way she touches me is much different from how she touches Tim or Bruce.
This is something even more intimate than sex.
See, I'm... sensitive about who touches me. Even more so now than I was back when we were kids. Some of the major scars I've acquired over the years are a bit of an issue for me. It's vanity, I know it is. I'm human, though. I have my quirks like anybody else. I don't like those places touched because of the memories associated with that spot. I've had… meltdowns, to put it mildly when others I've been with have brushed a particular place on my body that I don't like touched.
Not with her.
Never with her.
When her fingers skim over those areas, the demons inside me remain quiet. Why? I don't know. Maybe it's because she is the flame bird and her touch healing. Maybe it's because I love her and trust her. It could be all of the above. I'm not honestly sure what the reason is. I just know it is.
I'm also not like Raya, who somehow manages to wear the scar her father gave her as if it's a badge of honor. My fingers trace over where the scar from that night zigzags her shoulder. It's hidden from my view by the folds of Tim's pilfered sweatshirt, but I know it is there. I will always know it's there. For Raya, that scar is physical proof that shows other domestic abuse victims about how one can face their abuser and take back some of the control that was taken from them. Raya took back more than a bit of herself that night, though. She finally was able to put to rest one of the nights haunting her. And I gotta admit that putting that bastard into cuffs allowed me to take back a bit of myself as well.
However, that is still a night I would love a chance to do over. I'd make some vastly different choices from the ones I made that night. The first thing I'd change is my telling Raya that her father had Damian. Raya would never have put her life in jeopardy if I'd have left her with Tim and gone to rescue our little bird myself.
Oh, but the biggest thing I'd change about that night was my decision to not put Matthew Berkeley down the second I saw him put that knife against Damian's throat…
The Berkeley Estate
Three years ago.
"Either let me go now," Robin growled at the man holding him hostage. "Or know that when I do get free that I will systematically take you apart, piece by piece. I will stick that kunai in your neck, in your thigh, in your stomach." His eyes narrowed to thin blue slits. "And I will stand over you and watch as you bleed to death."
Berkeley's face drained of all color in the wake of Robin's very real threat. His hand trembled upon the handle of the knife he held in one hand. And there was a twitch of something- fear? that shimmered underneath the damnation of his madness. Then he chuckled. The sound of it had Batman's and Red Robin's bellies clenching in dread and their bodies coiling in preparation of action.
"You won't kill me, little Robin." He spoke with a confidence that was undermined by the tremor in his voice. "My sainted daughter won't let you kill me. Plays by Batman's rules, remember?"
Robin made a soft ffff sound. "I am not asking either her permission," a pause. "Or Batman's."
Matthew Berkeley visibly swallowed, and his eyes shifted nervously between the boy in his grasp, the caped figures flanking him, and the woman standing as still as a statue in front of him. Finally he smiled, a slow and slippery smile that was chalk full of predatory arrogance and glee.
"My dear boy," he said silkily. "You won't get a chance to kill me." At Robin's scoff, he continued, "My daughter wants to lock me in a prison cell for the rest of my life. Killing me would deny her that pleasure."
"What you've always failed to realize, Father," Raya's voice was calm as a midsummer's rain. "Is that at no point in time do I have to choose to save you. And believe me," she added in a low rasp. "My largest regret is stopping the Red Hood from putting a bullet in you when he had the chance." Hatred swirled in that verdant gaze, swam across that alabaster face. "He's right when he says that the world would be a lot better off without vermin like you and the Joker in it."
Berkeley's breath expelled in one long, moist hiss. The implication in her tone was clear. Were Robin to get his hands on him, she wouldn't save him. Not this time.
"Traitorous bitch..." he snarled. "You're just like your mother. Weak and pathetic."
"I'm nothing like my mother," Raya refuted in a hard voice. "She chose to remain with you. I chose Batman over you."
Berkeley howled with his rage. Batman was already reaching for a batarang in the second that it took him to lift up his arm. The light glinted off the cold metal as it came slashing down, spelling death as it rent through time and space on its way to its intended destination within the chest of the bound Robin. He let the batarang fly, saw out of the corner of his eye that Red had let one of his throwing disks fly at the same moment. Both of the projectiles sang as they tumbled end over end through the air. Each man knew that neither projectile was going to arrive in time to stop the events slowly unfolding with every second that ticked by on the clock.
They could only watch as Raya curled her fingers into the nylon threads that held Robin immobile and yank the boy to her, twisting to the side in the same moment the smaller figure toppled against her. Batman's heart slammed against his chest as he watched that blade rip through her flesh rather than plunge into Robin's chest, the surprising bite of the pain eliciting a soft shriek that rocked him forward even as she sunk down to one knee. Berkeley let out a high keening sound of triumph before he lifted the knife again.
The batarang slammed into the back of his neck, knocking the madman face down on the floor and stunning him. The bloody knife skittered harmlessly across the glossy floor, bouncing against the tip of Robin's boot and remaining there. Batman saw Robin tilt his head to look at it, his eyes and face a mask of disgust, anger and shock. His immediate concern was for the woman on one knee.
"Raya!" He rushed towards her, dropped beside her with Red Robin barely a step behind. He took hold of the injured limb, turning it gently while saying, "Let me see how bad it is."
"I'm okay," she told him quietly. "You just go and cuff my father."
"Damn it, woman," he rasped. "You're hurt. Red..."
"You get my father into restraints, Dick," she told him in a low whisper. "You. I need you to cuff him. Please."
Their eyes met, held. Shared secrets. Had words. Finally he nodded and rose to his feet.
"Stay with her," he ordered Robin. "Commissioner Gordon will be here in two minutes to Mirandize Berkeley. Then I want you both going to the bunker and getting checked out."
"Ttch." Robin mumbled that single, solitary word. "I do not need to be coddled."
Batman, however, heard his uncertainty and hurt and took a moment to silently reassure the boy by setting a hand upon his shoulder. Then he turned to stalk towards where Berkeley was just stirring, taking out a set of restraints from his utility belt as he went. Raya had asked him to do this for her, but he really needed to do this for himself. This man had hurt many people with his madness. He bent and grasped Berkeley by his shirt front, yanking the man up until they were nose-to-nose.
"Your reign of terror is over, Berkeley!" he growled. "You understand me? A cell is going to be your home from now on."
Berkeley coughed and chuckled tonelessly. "My only regret is I aimed for the brat and not my whore of a daughter."
"You come near her or Robin again," he snarled. "And I will break you in half."
Berkeley's dark eyes studied his. "So tell me, Batman," he said derisively. "Is my daughter spreading her legs for you?" His laugh was cold, cruel. "You're awfully protective of her for some reason. Makes a father wonder… why?"
His answer was a jaw-breaking punch to the man's sneering face.
Not killing Raya's father is one of the biggest things I regret. I know, I know, Batman-nor Nightwing- kills. It does not mean that the want to do so doesn't cross our minds at times. Again, we're human. We have feelings, same as everybody. We're not perfect. Plus, it's managing to not take that step that separates us from the criminals that we bring to justice. But I'd have spared Raya, and plenty of others, years of emotional abuse and physical pain if I had been able to ignore our family's golden rule about not killing.
And yes, I realize that I would not be the man that Raya sees me as if I had given into my temptation. Being that man she sees me as is what keeps me strong. It's the thought I keep in my mind whenever I am facing down criminals like the Joker or Tony Zucco. Have I slipped? Yes. Have I skirted the sidelines of this particular rule? Yes. She'll be the first one to tell you about how much both of those dances with the devil cost me mentally. Same as she'll tell you what she told me in order to help me get beyond those moments: "we fall so we can rise."
The fact remains that I'm her Knight. I'm her Hero. Bruce and Commissioner Gordon defend and protect her because they are her father's and it's what good father's do. I do it because it is what a man does for the woman he loves. I'm the man who defends her honor, who protects her from harm. I shield her from as much of the bloody onslaught as I can. And I will continue to be that man until I am either to old, crippled or dead.
"I can't answer this proposal, Dick," I hear her saying.
This proposal? That immediately snags my attention. I lean my head back and look at her.
"What do you mean by this proposal?"
She gives me a look that says she'd love nothing better than to crack me over the head with anything heavy she could get her hands on. But then she says, "You asked me to marry you on my twenty-sixth birthday, buzzard brains."
Her twenty-sixth birthday? That was when... realization dawns brighter than the sun.
"Bruce came home that night."
"Yes." I see her nod. "And I never answered that proposal because everything went crazy…"
"When are our lives not crazy, babe?"
"Well, things are always crazy in this family," she admits with only the faintest of smiles curving her lips. "But we did have a lot of things hit us all at that time. I mean Bruce returned and got into that fight with Talia over Damian, Ra's went after Tim for screwing over the League, Shiva tried to kill Tim and you and then Jason, there was that incident with the Joker, Crane resurfaced and took over Arkham, Cadmus sent men after Conner, there was that case I was working, and then Jason got injured and needed me to go take care of him." She drops her head back against my chest. "There just never seemed like a right time for me to bring the subject up. And when you didn't bring up your having proposed again…" she trails off into a sigh.
"You figured that I had taken it back."
Yup, that statement about me being the stupidest man in the entire universe is quickly becoming truer with every moment of my life I re-visit. Why? I can hear you all asking. Well, I totally had the opportunity to make this incredible woman my wife three years ago, and I completely let her slip right through my stripped fingers. And why did I let Raya slide through my fingers? Because I was so busy with everything else going on that I failed to realize I never got an answer to the question that I'd asked her.
I know, I know. You're asking how the hell can someone forget that they asked a woman to marry them?
The second I saw her cousin, Barbara, had called me, I completely forgot about Raya. I shrugged off it being her birthday, about asking her to marry me, about what should have been the happiest night of our lives and fixated upon why Barbara was calling me and not Skyping me-a fact I now know was because a certain Fenix had shut the computer off- like she normally would. And the only thoughts in my mind were that Bruce might have surfaced, that he could be in need of our aide, hell that Tim and Damian could be in trouble, that Jason might have gotten himself into some sort of mischief… or any number of things could have happened that would require me to suit up and go handle.
I put duty and obligation above Raya.
I also know why she never brought the proposal up. It's because she was afraid of the answer she might receive if she did. Raya fears rejection. And I've already got two strikes against me in that department. So Raya did what she always does when faced with a situation where the possibility of rejection is high. She avoided it. And I've been wondering why she hasn't said yes, no, or go to hell to my proposal? I can see why. It's because I didn't give her a chance to say yes, no, or go to hell to my first proposal.
Well, there's a way to fix that and put an end to this entire mess.
"Tell me the answer to that proposal now."