Author's Note: My third Wayne brothers centric fic. Tied to 'Father's Day' and especially 'The Choice of Family'. A lot of you have asked for more Jason, so here's my attempt. If any of the dialog sounds cryptic (especially the stuff towards the end) it's a reference to the "Under the Red Hood" arc. Hope you like and as always, please read and review!
Antidote for the Poison
By Silver Spider
It occurred to Damian as he sprinted across the rooftop and swung to the next that he'd never felt fear when his own life was at steak. He'd been shot and shot at, threatened by everyone from nameless street punks to the worst of Arkham inmates to his own mother and grandfather. He could handle that. It was only his life. But when it was one of his family – his father, brothers – whose lives were at steak, Damian suddenly found himself gripped by a kind of fear he couldn't control, the kind that stole the breath from his lungs and robbed him of all the careful training he'd been through. He found himself feeling small and helpless, the ordinary ten-year-old boy he both longed to be and feared becoming.
Just over a month had passed since his eldest brother and partner in their family's war on crime in Gotham had been shot in a crossfire between a gang and Jason Todd, the Red Hood, who professed that his way of cleaning up the city was the only one that worked. Once upon a time Damian might have agreed with him, if Dr. Thomkins has not dug two bullets out of Dick's body. She'd ordered at least six weeks off the streets, and with Bruce still globe-trotting on behalf of Batman Inc., Tim stepped up as Damian's temporary partner. On the one hand it wasn't too bad. They were getting along much better. Damian had finally come to think of everyone at the manner as family, and called Dick and Tim brothers, even if it was usually only in his head. Working together, the two Robins could take care of the city until Dick donned the cowl again.
But cowl or not, Red Robin was no Batman. He was good, but Tim knew he didn't inspire the same kind of nearly-superstitious fear as Bruce or Dick did as the Dark Knight. He did, however, have many enemies after all the drug dealers, pimps, and even a few crime lords he'd helped put away single handedly. And of course there were Batman and Robin's enemies. Enemies who got brave the moment they realized Batman was however temporarily out of action. They'd assured Bruce and Dick they could handle it.
They were wrong.
This was supposed to be the final night of their team-up. Their father was back in the city, but with everything else on his plate, they'd volunteered to go on this last patrol without him. The warehouse was dark and, from all signs, empty when Robin slipped in through a skylight, but there were plenty of signs that it had been occupied recently. The smell of stale smoke and scattered empty bear bottles might have simply indicated an abandoned party, but the overturned wooden crates with spilled straw around them indicated something else – possibly weapons – had resided here not long ago. And there were other things; bottles, bags of white powders, and small stoves.
Dealers, then. Fine. Robin didn't care about that. He'd get the bad guys later or even another night. All he wanted to do was find his partner. They'd only separated for an hour. Tim's idea, and he'd made him promise to simply watch and call if something big went down. Apparently Red Robin hand not followed his own directions. Or he didn't get the chance...
A sound from the adjacent room caught his attention, and he scrambled to his feet and bolted for the heavy metal door, nearly tumbling inside as it didn't give nearly as much resistance as he'd expected. Then Damian froze.
Tim... Oh, God, his big brother...
Red Robin lay against the far wall as if he'd been tossed like a rag doll. His feet were bound, hands tied behind his back with some kind of wire. His young partner wondered why he didn't get out of such a simple restraint when he saw that the young man was barely breathing. The material at his throat had been torn open and there were needles and syringes lying on the floor around him. Damian couldn't breath, couldn't think. What had had they done?
"Tim?" He rolled his brother onto his back and peeled away the cowl. Unfocused blue eyes eyes blinked rapidly for a few second before rolling back into his head, and Damian couldn't help but cry out. "Wake up! Idiot! Drake, get up!"
The attempt to antagonize him was useless. There was a noise behind them, and Robin spun around only to catch the shift of a shadow dart across the other side of the room. With a trembling hand he reached for his utility belt.
"Who's there?" He tried to sound threatening, but his voice didn't come out terribly steady. "Show yourself!"
"Take it easy, baby bird," the figure stepped into the light, hands raised in a universal gesture of peace, but the Baterang was already out as soon as Robin caught sight of the red helmet that concealed the man's head. He took a step closer, and this time the boy did throw it, but muscle memory failed and the weapon missed by a few inches.
"I said easy, kid. I'm not gonna hurt you." Damian tensed but didn't move, and the Red Hood sighed. "Does this help?"
He removed the red helmet that shielded his face and tossed it aside. Damian's eyes darted between it and Jason, but at least he was breathing again. The man took a few more slow steps forward, splayed palms remaining in the air.
"You did this," the boy accused, but he didn't sound at all certain.
"Of course not. I know this looks bad, but I swear it's just good timing. Let me see." His voice was measured, careful, but Damian remained where he was, not moving away from Tim's side. "You love your brother. You don't want him to die. I can help. Let me take a look."
He did move out of the way when Jason knelt by Tim to examine the young man, checking pulse, pupils, and the injection marks on his throat. Damian hovered close watching for any suspicious movement, but also learning. Jason's style of fighting may have been brutal, but he was meticulous in his examinations, and the boy had a fairly good idea who was responsible for that habit.
"Why... why did they leave him alive?" Not that he wasn't grateful, but he couldn't understand why after capturing him, the dealers simply drugged Tim. They hadn't even removed his cowl...
"Because they're spineless shit-eating..." Jason's cold reply cut off abruptly. "They're afraid of retaliation, what Batman might do if they killed one of his boys. Not that they really have anything to worry about..."
Damian got it. He might not have been able to articulate it, but he understood. If they shot or beat Tim to death, that was one thing, but if he accidentally died of a drug overdose... well, tons of teenagers o. every day. Somehow it made sense to twitchy paranoid trash like that, but they also didn't know that Jason was right; no matter what happened, his father would not abandon his code about the use of lethal force.
"Fuckin' hell." The curse snapped him back to reality and he saw that the man was examining one of the syringes.
"Call..." Jason gritted his teeth. "Call Dick."
"Then call Bruce! I don't care who, but someone's gotta come and pick him up. Tell them to bring a..." he let out a breath, "a med-kit with supplies for treating a heroin overdose."
Damian felt like he'd been punched in the stomach, but did as he was told. He was just reaching to make the call when a scent in the air drifted past his nose. Jason must have smelled it too because his head snapped up, nostrils flaring. He quickly scanned their surroundings until he saw what he was looking for. Whatever it was, it must have been bad.
"Idiots. Fuckin' morons," he cursed and haled Tim up so he could carry him. "Get up, little bird, and run. Now!"
They were a good block away from the warehouse before he allowed them to slow, and Damian looked back in time to see a series of explosions consume the building.
"What was that?" he looked at Jason wide eyed.
"Meth," the man replied simply. "Idiots were cooking meth in there and someone left a stove plugged in. Even a little..."
"We breathed it in," the boy looked horrified. "Tim was probably breathing it for hours."
"He's got bigger problems than a little second-hand meth," Jason said grimly. "Call for help, and tell whoever comes to meet us at... at Crime Ally."
If he had any expectations about what the Red Hood's secret hideout might be like, they were all dispelled when Jason brought them to an old rundown apartment with little more than a mattress on the floor where he placed Red Robin. Tim was drifting in and out of consciousness but the brief moments of clarity made Damian hopeful. Jason filled a chipped glass from the faucet and propped him up and forced him to sip some water some of which Tim actually managed to swallow before turning away from the glass.
"That..." the youth slurred, "tastes funny. Kanda... kinda like... umm... l'iquor. N...no, more like... broccoli. Yeah, thasit. Vege'able..."
Actually the whole place smelled like mildew and stale smoke, but Damian didn't comment.
"Not all of us live in a mansion, little bird," Jason replied cooly as if he was talking to a perfectly lucid person. He put the glass back on the floor and patted Tim on the back so he wouldn't inhale the access water. Tim coughed then plopped back down.
Jason froze halfway across the room, but by the time he turned back his patient was out cold.
"I'm just going to pretend you called me a dick," he muttered then scowled at Damian. "Well? Where's your old man? I know it doesn't take him this long just to swing across town."
"I called," the boy returned the glare. "He said he'd..."
As if on cue, a cool breeze wafted in from the window, and Jason melted into the darkest corner almost in the same instance as Batman stepped into the light. Damian almost bolted off the floor and ran to his father who was already removing the cowl and turning clearly worried eyes on the unconscious Tim.
"I found him," the boy blurted. "He..."
"You got him out by yourself?" Bruce knelt by the matters and placed one gloved hand on his youngest's shoulder and reached out with the other to feel Tim's pulse.
"Well," Jason stepped out of the shadows and shrugged nonchalantly. "I helped. A little."
They spoke quietly on the other side of the room while Damian waited with Tim. Occasionally he glanced in their direction, but the boy couldn't make out anything accept the twin tension in their body language. He'd never seen his father so on edge. Something profound changed about Bruce. He recognized it as being similar to the tension in his eldest brother when Jason was around but amplified many times over.
"Come back to the manor with us," Bruce was saying. The copper-haired young man scoffed and shook his head, but Damian could see that his father would not be dismissed so easily. "I need to get him back immediately, but I also need to know what happened, who I'm dealing with. You can tell me on the way home. Jason, please."
"This is my home," the youth pointed at the dingy floor forcefully. "Or did you forget?"
"No. But you..." There was the faintest hint of regret in his voice, then Bruce stopped mid-sentence and took a breath. "I need your help, Jason. Tim needs your help."
Damian knew it was the last part that finally got him into the Batmobile with them. It was cramped in the back, but he squeezed with his brother's head in his lap and an arm wrapped around his torso so that he wouldn't fall as the car took off. Jason remained silent for the entire journey, and there was too much tension in the vehicle for Damian to talk even if he had anything to say. He just held on to his brother and let his mind go numb.
He was glad to finally be home because, despite the effects of the antitoxins, Tim seemed much more comfortable in his own bed, because Alfred was there with hot coco, and most of all because Dick was there and no one made him feel better. Dick hugged – a lot! – and Damian protested – now, mostly out of habit – but it always made him feel warm and comfortable and he really needed it this time. He was tired of his brothers always being hurt.
If the eldest of Bruce's sons was surprised to see Jason, he didn't show it. He and Barbara had just come up from the cave when they arrived, and after being assured by their father that Tim would be okay, Dick had simply nodded to the younger man. Barbara and Jason also exchanged court greetings, but Damian could detect something else pass between them. It was gone in an instance, but for a second it was as if they were the only two people in the room on the same frequency. The boy wondered about that.
"How's the... how's the shoulder?" Jason nodded at Dick's injured left side. It wasn't anything in the way of an apology; just something to break the long uncomfortable silence.
"Getting there," he said, rolling it back and even managing not to wince for the first time in weeks. "What happened to Tim?"
"Mid rank dealers," the other replied courtly. "For his sake, I hope those needles were new."
Dick waited for a beat. "That's all?"
"What do you want me to say? Kid got there before I did." He nodded his head in Damian's direction at the foot of the stairs.
For his part, the boy kept glancing between the two, reading everyone's expressions as carefully as possible. His brother was tense, like he wanted to launch a volley of questions at Jason but was unsure how to do it without outright accusing him of anything. Damian had done just that on sight, but after Jason had helped get his brother out, he was not quite so pleased with himself for that. He was actually glad Dick was holding back.
Before the tension got too unbearable, Barbara maneuvered her chair between the two. "Come help me in the kitchen, Jason."
"Ask your boyfriend," he scowled, but it was nothing compared to the one she returned.
"I'm asking you. They're going to check on Tim, and I can't reach anything on the top shelf."
"You're really playing the 'poor crippled girl' card?" His tone was incredulous.
"Yup." She didn't miss a beat. "So come help me."
When they were safely out of earshot, Damian gave a small exhale and raised his eyes to his brother. "She's really good."
"The best," Dick agreed and pulled him up. "Let's go see Timmy."
The boy was quiet part of the way up the stairs then glanced back in the direction of the kitchen where Jason was. "You were shot because of him."
"I know." His brother's reply was calm.
"But he saved Tim."
"Yes, he did."
"I don't understand."
Dick stopped in the middle tier of the stairs then knelt in front of him. "We don't keep score, Damian. Not in general, but especially not with Jason. I'm not making excuses for him, and I don't necessarily forgive everything he's done, but he did save Tim, and for that I'm incredibly grateful. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Kind of," the boy frowned. "He keeps score, doesn't he? Jason, I mean. That's the problem."
"That's part of it, but it's not that simple," Dick bit his lip. "Jason's... not a happy person. I wish he was. I wish some day he could be, but right now he's not. It makes him... not see things clearly."
Damian thought about the evening's events as he lay awake in bed later that night. Tim was finally resting under their father's careful eye. Stephanie was still out on patrol with the Birds as backup should it be needed. He might have volunteered to go again as well. His father had not explicitly forbidden it, but for now he just wanted to stay with his brothers and maybe get a little sleep himself.
Bad guys could wait. There were always more of them. He tried not to think about how even a little while ago such a thought might make him scoff and berate himself for showing weakness. Damian knew he was changing, even if he sometimes pretended he hadn't, and he didn't really like the person he used to be not too long ago. A person like that might have very well left Tim to die, and even Jason was not that horrible.
He knew that the former Robin would not remain long, but after a conversation with his father – 'conversation' was a nice word for a series of short questions and answers in between scowls from Jason and stretches of silence from Bruce – he'd expected him to at least spend the night. So when movement outside his window caused Damian to scramble out of bed for a better look, he was... surprised to catch sight of the man moving quickly away from the manor and disappear into the darkness.
It was more than simple curiosity that made him grab the Robin suit which was always close at hand and follow Jason. Damian had no idea what to expect, but when he realized they were back in the same area where Tim had been drugged and left for dead by the dealers, the thought that maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all came into his mind. He should leave, the boy reasoned even as he continued to move forward while keeping well out of Jason's sight, but he didn't. Apparently the last part was not as easy. The man had picked up quite a few skills during his time with his father. Jason stopped at the main entrance of the warehouse and, without actually turning around, spoke.
"Since you're here already, you can come the rest of the way," he thew over his shoulder and replaced the red helmet over his head. "Just don't get in the way."
Damian paused, but remained where he was a few steps away as the Red Hood strode in. Moments later the inside of the warehouse exploded into chaos and the sound of bullets flying in every direction. Several thugs came running out in a panic minutes later, and this time Robin did dutifully finish them off and left them tied up and unconscious at the bottom of the nearest street lamp. He made a mental note to call the police as soon as he finished with Jason.
Whatever fight had taken place, it was quiet inside now. The boy remained in the shadows making quick notes on his surroundings. Not all the thugs were gone. One particularly large slob of a man was tied to a simple metal chair in the middle of the room. The Red Hood stood in front of him, right foot resting in the middle of that chair forcing the man to scoot back as far away as he could considering his immense bulk. His eyes were locked onto the rather large knife that hovered an inch from his face.
"Benny, Benny, Benny." The Red Hood shook his head in disappointment, right elbow resting on his raised knee and brandishing the knife. "And here I thought your I.Q. was higher than the average rodent. We had a deal, Ben. I let you go about your business, and you keep that business away from kids."
"I... we... but we did!" The dealer was sweating now, pupils dilated with terror.
Damian tensed as he heard the man's jaw crack under the Hood's backhand punch. "And what do you call what went down tonight? How old do you think that boy was? Fifteen? Sixteen?"
Actually Tim was almost eighteen, but he could have easily passed for younger, not being a particularly big person. There was no reason to announce Red Robin's exact age to the scum of Gotham.
"But... he's one of the Bat's!"
"I don't remember making exceptions." Another crack. "You took my little brother, tied him up, pumped him full of heroin, and left him to die in this shit hole. Now I ask you: do you think I have the slightest bit of remorse about cutting you open and letting your guts decorate the floor?"
The dealer looked like he might loose his last meal in either direction and began sobbing and babbling incoherently. Damian wondered if he should intervene somehow, but the decision was taken out of his hands when the Red Hood turned towards him.
"Why don't we ask for a second opinion. What do you think, Robin? What do you think this scum deserves?"
He hurt my brother, a voice in his head screamed. He deserves to die! But the voice didn't belong to him. It was the voice of someone lashing out in fury and pain.
Someone like who Damian used to be.
Someone like who Jason still was.
"We should call the police," he said quietly. "Red Robin would."
If the Red Hood had any reaction to that reply, he hid it well. He looked at Robin for a long time, then turned back to the dealer.
"You are one lucky son of a bitch," he told the man. "If I ever see you anywhere in Gotham again other than prison, I'll kill you. Understand?"
Another punch, and the dealer was out cold. The young man pushed the chair with his foot, and he fell to the floor with a thud. When he joined Robin at the door, he took a sidelong glance at the thugs under the street lamp before turning to the boy.
"I thought you were calling the cops," he said pointedly.
They waited until the sirens were less than a block away before making a retreat for the rooftops. There were plenty of drugs and cash at the scene to put every man there away for quiet a while. Damian watched as the bruised dealer was separated from the chair and loaded in the back of a G.C.P.D. cruiser.
"What did you mean when you said you had a deal with that man?" he finally asked.
The Red Hood removed his helmet. "Do you really want to know?"
No, he didn't, or he might start keeping score, too.
Jason sighed. "Come on, kid. Let's get you home before your dad wonders why his baby boy is skulking around places like this."
It was almost dawn by the time they made it back to the manor. The entire journey was spent in silence as Damian wondered just what Jason could be thinking but didn't ask. He used to think he knew how to read people. Actually, he used to think he should know because his father was so good at it, but Damian now understood that it was not so much a genetically inherited trait as something gained from years of practice and also depending on the person. Dick was easy to read. Tim, too, once they opened up a little to one another. Their father was extremely guarded, and he realized that at least in that respect, Jason was a lot like him. Damian thought he understood the man from the first violent moment they'd met. Now he understood just how arrogant that thinking was.
His father was making his way down the path from the front door just as they turned a corner. He looked neither surprised nor angry, almost casual with his hands buried in the pockets of his coat, but this was one of those unreadable moments so Damian was still a bit apprehensive. He spread up his stride until he was standing in front of his father, head bent slightly.
"You look tired," Bruce observed. He didn't ask where he'd been.
"A little," the boy admitted timidly. "How's Tim?"
"Sleeping. Which is what you should be doing." He made a face that was vague gesture of displeasure, but his father wasn't swayed. "Go inside, Damian. We'll talk later."
"Okay." He started up towards the manor then turned. "Bye, Jason."
"See you 'round, kid. Don't make me have to get your ass out of trouble again. Might not feel like it next time."
That Damian did recognize as a lie, but his own smirk was well hidden. "See you."
Being left alone with Bruce – not Batman – topped Jason's list of uncomfortable situations. When he faced Batman, both of their faces were hidden by their respective masks. Now there was nowhere to hide. He ignored the man's intense eyes, choosing to instead watch Damian until the boy disappeared inside the house. Then he had no more excuses.
"You know," Jason said casually. "He's not that bad of a kid. Solid in a fight. Must give Grayson hell, though."
Bruce didn't take the bait, but then again he hadn't expected him to. Mr. perfect emotional control and all that. It made the anger bubble up all over again. Images of newspaper stories about the Joker being returned to Arkham flashed before his eyes. That madman killed me, took me away, and the man who was supposed to be my father did nothing... His lungs it would have been different if he was like Damian, a real son. But no, Bruce loved Dick and Tim no less. Jason saw it in his eyes when he took the teen back to the manor. Maybe it was just Jason himself who was so… unworthy.
"This is the second time you brought one of my sons home," Bruce's calm voice snapped the young man out of his thoughts. "I would be even happier if you made it three."
"Last time I checked they were all present and accounted for," was the casual response, but Jason's throat tightened.
"No." His former mentor's face was drawn in sorrow. All masks were gone now. "They haven't all been with me for a very long time. Come back, Jason. Come home, son."
The young man's faces twisted in fury. "How can you say that? I got Dick shot, beat the crap out of your ten-year-old on a few occasions, and tonight some dealers I let run free shot up Tim with heroin. How do you still call me 'son' when I might have got every one of yours killed."
"You didn't, and we don't keep score."
"Maybe I do!" Jason shouted. "I can't just... forget! I can't..."
"You're in pain." Bruce took a step closer and placed both firm hands on his shoulders. It felt good, solid. "I'm not going to patronize you and say 'I understand'. I know it's the worst thing to hear sometimes. But there's nothing that can't be mended, no length I won't go to to help you."
"No, you don't understand! Bruce, I'm... poison," he finally blurted out, eyes shining with unshed tears. "Even if I wanted to, me being here would tear everyone apart. I've seen them together. All of them. You did good, old man. They're a force, even the little one. And I won't be the one who comes between what they have."
"Then don't. Be a part of it again. It's selfish of me to ask, I know, but it kills me, Jason. It kills me every time I see you out there alone. I know I failed you, son, but please… give me another chance."
Jason hung his head, teeth gritted and fists clenched. There was no part of him that didn't ache at those words. Nothing he wanted more than to sob and cling to his father, to cry that of course he'd come back to the only place he'd ever felt loved. He wanted the warmth everyone at the manor brought, the company of brothers.
But that meant changing and letting go, and every time Jason even considered it, he knew he couldn't... just couldn't. He might last a few days, a week, a month, but sooner or later the need for blood and vengeance would become too strong. Everything would fall apart again, and he would drag down everyone into his personal hell again.
Maybe when the Joker is finally dead... But if he were honest with himself, Jason didn't know if even that would make things easier.
"Things are the way they are," he bit his lip. "You can't change what happened, and I have to find my own way."
He turned and started back down the path, listening for Bruce's footsteps to retreat back to the house. When the sound didn't come, Jason exhaled and turned back. His former mentor's face was open for once, and it was easy to read the sadness. His mentor... his father, really. He wondered what it would be like to call him that. Dick and Tim loved Bruce, but they reserved the word 'Dad' for their respective biological fathers. Good men, both, but there was never a good man who Jason could to call that.
Before pride could crush the impulse, he crossed the short distance between them and wrapped his arms around his father.
"Bye, Dad. Take good care of them till I can."
And then he was gone, with the unspoken words that there was a good chance Bruce would always have to take care of his brothers, because Jason wasn't at all certain he'd ever be able to.
But he had this night, so maybe – just maybe – he could again.