Disclaimer: Batman and all associated comics are the property of DC comics. Events herein are drawn from the following issues: Batman, Inc. #7-8, Red Hood and the Outlaws #17, Nightwing #17, and the majority of the old DCU. SPOILERS DO APPLY, and please note that while the Death of the Family arc is difficult to correlate with Batman, Inc.'s recent issues … it is impossible to mesh RHatO #17 with Batman, Inc. #7. Some suspension of belief is required.
Warnings: Child Death, Profanity, Violence, Mental Trauma and a blunt description of both fatal and non-fatal injuries sustained in the canon comics listed above.
Author's Note: Did I just fix the reboot in an epilogue? Why, yes … yes, I did. Tribute will be accepted in the form of virtual chocolate. Thanks for reading.
Barbara is the one to tell Jason when he finally claws his way out of the Joker's courtesy mindfuck just a little too late. Barbara has to tell Jason, because Bruce is repressing everything but the mission, and Dick had to be sedated. Barbara has to tell Jason, because Alfred is sleeping off the effects of sleeping pills and guilt. Barbara has to tell Jason, because no one knows where Tim even is.
Leviathan had reared its ugly head yet again.
Talia had delivered her ultimatum for the third time, and Gotham had been saved by the sacrifice of an eleven year old boy. Seriously, fuck Gotham. Sane people fucking left Gotham before shit like this happened.
It had taken both the monstrous Fatherless and an army to bring down Robin.
Jason is strangely proud of the kid and furious on his behalf all at the same time.
And torn. The Red Hood was torn, because Talia had watched her son die. According to Babs, the kid asked her to call it off and Talia was silent. Talia had allowed her son to die alone. It doesn't even matter that Dick and Tim were in the room at the time, Damian had died alone.
And Talia knows better.
Fuck, the woman had saved Jason's life, had cared for him when Jason was at his most vulnerable, and even funded his crusade of vengeance freely. Talia, of all people, knew exactly what it was like to die alone, betrayed by a mother, to fight until the end only to realize with seconds to spare that the end was coming anyway. Talia knows all of that, because Jason had told her.
Talia had been the most generous person in his life outside of the Bat Family. In his own way, Jason had trusted Talia … because Jason remembers nights of conversation, nights where conversation was the last thing on their minds, and all of the sympathetic mutual bitching over Bruce and Batman and an assortment of Robins. Jason had trusted Talia, and now she is responsible for a dead Robin.
Jason has been known to deal poorly with dead Robins.
Now, Jason just wants to shake some sense into the woman. He wants to scream, rant, rave, and demand answers. He wants to make her look—really look—at what she had done without the disconnect of cameras, without comlinks, without the hundred barriers separating Talia al Ghul from the gritty reality of what she had done to her own son.
… but that isn't Jason's right. Damian isn't his son, isn't his Robin, isn't anything to Jason except an echo of what the Red Hood had once been. Jason had died to overcome the Robin legacy; he had hoped that Damian wouldn't have to.
What was another dead Robin?
Barbara is fidgeting in the seat by his bed, and Jason turns away from her deliberately. He rolls until all he can see is the expanse of Cave walls beyond Dick's comatose form. He's still wearing the Nightwing suit of yesterday, and Jason hopes that someone remembers to fix that before Dick wakes up because he can see the dried blood from here.
"Bruce has him on suicide watch," came from behind him, and the voice is vicious with anger, yes, but also fraught with pain. Jason gives her a pass, because there's a dead Robin, Dick looks worse than dead, and well, because Jason has always liked Babs, dang it. "He doesn't trust him … and neither do I."
Jason doesn't personally think the golden child has it in him to lay another loss across their shoulders, even as Dick crumbles under the weight on his own. No, Dick will deal with this through an enormous sense of misplaced-guilt and shame that would make the Bat-mantle proud. Early retirement and depression were definite possibilities in Dick's future, but not suicide.
Not another loss.
Dick wouldn't argue though. He would just sit there and do what he was told; brooding quietly underneath his epic mane of hair until someone—that someone probably being Jason—threw him in the pond behind the house and cut through the bullshit to the heart of the matter.
Not yet—it would be a while before any of them could hear it.
"He shattered, Jay." The pain in her voice was laced with helplessness now, and neither suited Babs. "He wasn't awake five minutes after, and Tim had to sedate him."
Jason rolled back with a sigh. "Dickie-bird was close to the kid."
Barbara is denting the cheap plastic of her chair's arms through the sheer power of her grip. "I thought he was breaking before. I didn't think he could recover from …" from that thing, the one that they can't speak about even during a tragedy like this, Jason's mind supplies for her. "But Damian got through to him somehow, and now that crutch has been ripped away … Dick won't bounce back from this one."
An ominous creak forces Barbara to abandon the armrests and tuck her hands in her lap. Jason eyes them warily as they fisted, relaxed, and then dug into the denim material of Barbara's off-duty clothes.
"I would give up anything," Barbara whispered leaning forward. "Anything," she repeats, and Jason can see the depth of that statement in the way her body curls and her legs somehow become lesser in the overall picture for the first time all year. "Anything at all … to have that angry, homicidal, utterly ridiculous little boy back again for Dick."
Jason gave her a sideways smile: "World doesn't work like that, Red."
It's just him and Babs for now. Bruce is somewhere in the Bay District, Jason learns after a bit when he feels up to talking again. Tim still hasn't checked in, and Cass is on her way home, but no one's gotten through to Steph.
"Steph won't answer my calls," Babs explains. "It's not really something I want to leave in a message, you know?"
"So call her from the," Jason clears his throat, "the demon brat's phone. Even if she's missed the evening news, she ain't gonna ignore his number."
Damian had all of three friends in the world, Jason's pretty sure that Steph stayed in contact with the kid even after falling out with Babs and losing track of Tim.
Barbara gives him an unimpressed look over the top of her glasses, and that's how Jason finds himself on the interstate in one of Bruce's expensive cars.
It's a four hour drive to Steph's university, and if the timing wasn't smack-dab in the middle of midterms, he probably would have passed Steph somewhere along the way. Blondie drove like a literal bat out of hell, and Jason loved her just a little bit for it.
Midterms are a thing though, the Compact is nowhere to be seen, and Steph is probably closeted in her apartment with half the school library's criminology collection. Jason can hear some soft classical music playing quietly beyond the door, and it's a nice door. Bruce has good taste, even if throwing his money at problems never solved anything.
Steph has been exiled, and no matter how pretty her apartment is, or how nice her car is, or how the Wayne name is conspicuously absent from her scholarship … Steph knows it.
When Jason manages a stiff knock, he can hear a mild grumble followed by a perkier comment and the music disappears right before Steph answered the door. She takes one look at Jason, and then she knows.
There is only one reason for the Red Hood to call on a former-Batgirl—a former Robin.
Steph nods slowly and reasonably. She takes a step back as if to let Jason into the apartment, and then her face caves in as she rocks forward instead, taking back that step and then another. Somehow she ends up in Jason's arms, fingers twisted into his sweatshirt as she cries into his chest.
Jason clutches her closer until she's on tiptoe and Jason just takes her weight, because it's the first thing that's really grounded him in the present reality. He presses a kiss to the top of her head, and runs a hand down her back, tracing the spine through the over-sized cardigan Steph's wearing over her pajamas.
He notices their audience about then—stupid fucking civilians watching like this is some kind of TV drama and they can't even begin to understand. Steph … Steph understands, because she's not stupid. "I want a shot at her," she swears as Jason walks her backward into the apartment and out of the hallway. "I don't care if she can kick my ass."
They don't clarify unnecessary details, as they sink into the sofa together. Steph may be out of the loop, but she knows that the only way Mama al Ghul hasn't miracled away the damage is if the older woman was the one to inflict it. She doesn't ask for details, and Jason doesn't give her a fairy tale story of heroics although she might be getting the wrong impression from the burns and bandages.
Babs says the damage isn't as bad as it could have been. The mask isn't a perfect fit to Jason's face so the high points took the most damage—tip of his nose, the seams over his cheek, chin, brow, and one ear. In comparison to the epic mind-game-that-would-not-end, Jason could handle a few more scars. It made him even more of a badass.
A badass in a hospital bed while an eleven year old saved Gotham.
Jason wishes that Babs had left out the details, that the countless times in which she had clearly reviewed the video footage hadn't reduced a child's death to a series of facts … all very true, but ultimately without any kind of meaning. Jason could have lived without knowing that Damian was wearing his hood up at the time of death or that he had asked his mother three times to call off her monster.
"He's just a kid," Steph sniffles, and Jason tiredly rests his chin on the top of her head, because weren't they all?
Dead Robins, unite.
He returns with Steph in the passenger seat—sort of, if the original location of her butt upon entering the car is taken into account. Right now, she's curled along the bench seat, with her head pillowed against Jason's thigh, and a decent-sized duffle bag jammed into the footwell.
Jason wouldn't let her drive, so she took the time to doze fitfully. Occasionally a few new tears would stain her cheeks, but Steph doesn't move to brush them away and Jason doesn't comment. When Steph's eyes are dry, he strokes her hair with his free hand the way he would for Kory and continues to drive.
It's late when they get back, the night just starting to give way to the colourful dawn of Gotham's pollution-laden sunrise. It's a deep magenta—almost red—this morning, and Titus howls mournfully at it. The sound sets Jason's skin on edge as he hauls both Stephanie and her luggage from the vehicle.
The poor animal is sitting at attention on the front steps with a diminutive redhead beside him regardless of the hour. The kid's little friend heard it on the news then; what is it with Robins and redheads? Jason has inherited two from Dick, and of course there is Babs and now Damian's friend …
Jason recognizes, avoids, and redirects. "How'd you get out here on your lonesome, you big coward?" he scolds, rubbing large hands down the Great Dane's neck.
"Mr. Wayne put him out," Colin answers for the dog, digging his fingers in deep under Titus' heavy collar. "I didn't think it'd hurt to sit with him, right?"
Jason makes a noncommittal noise, but lets it go.
Steph approaches and the tween bounces off the steps with manners that never existed in this house. "Hi, Miss Stephanie," he offers shyly, and Steph gives him a ridiculously huge smile.
"Hi, Colin," she returns, and pulls the boy into a tight hug. Steph's blinking away tears again when she finally lets him go. "Have you seen Dick yet, sweetie?"
Colin drops his gaze. "I don't think he wants to see me right now."
"Colin, I think you would do Dick a world of good if you came inside." Steph held out her hand. "We could—maybe go together? Would that be okay?"
Colin straightens automatically; Blondie could work miracles on the mini monsters. "Yeah, Miss Stephanie. That'd be okay." He takes Steph's hand and lets her lead him into the mansion—leaving Jason outside with Steph's bag and the dog.
Alfred meets them in the foyer, his little discretion with the sleeping pills behind him. The butler seems to have aged decades in a matter of hours, and his hand shakes ever so slightly as it rests on Colin's shoulder. Steph isn't having any of the British reserve though; she wraps Alfred in a hug that the old man returns wearily.
Jason hefts Steph's bag a little higher and tucks Titus in close to his side to avoid any attempt on his person. Alfred sticks to a dignified nod over Steph's shoulder. "It is good to see you up and about, Master Jason. We have been greatly concerned."
It turns out that Bruce has found some kind of potential lead and gone straight back out. Alfred doesn't have any details; it's clear that the big guy blames Alfred for letting Damian leave the Cave. It's even more fucking obvious that Alfred blames himself, and Jason is surprised that Bruce bothered to notify the butler at all.
As for the rest of their number … Babs finished up the boss man's patrol, and has finally gone home to get some sleep. Cass' plane has been delayed, and Tim still hasn't checked in.
Dick has woken up and attempted to move his suffocating grief to the privacy of his room, but where Dick goes, so goes Alfred. The original Boy Wonder is ensconced in one of the seldom-used parlors where Alfred can keep an eye on him and encourage inhuman amounts of tea.
Stephanie takes Colin in that direction while Alfred escapes to the kitchen under the guise of preparing refreshments. Jason chooses to take advantage of the currently empty Cave.
Damian's bed has been curtained off for the sanity of those caring for Dick and Jason in the aftermath. No one but Alfred has stepped behind that curtain in the last twenty-four hours, but Jason slips past it now.
The sheet isn't pulled over Damian's face. Jason supposes that Alfred couldn't bear it, although no one could possibly fool themselves into thinking the child-soldier was sleeping. He's bruised, battered, worn away by the onslaught. Alfred has cleaned him up—washed away the blood and lovingly stitched up every wound with small, terribly neat stitches. All the broken bones have been reset and arranged delicately, but not casted.
Babs had given him the whole fucking list.
The formerly-gaping wound somehow looks lesser than what Jason has been imagining, but it still takes up considerable real-estate across Damian's torso. The blow would have mangled his ribcage, obliterated organs, and allowed Damian to bleed out—quickly, but alive and aware as the blood flowed.
Tim was conscious and trapped just across the room at the time. Jason worries that no one has been able to get ahold of Red Robin since.
Dick was unaware, and like Bruce being too late for the second time, it will weigh heavily on the first Robin. The golden bird with the charmed life, Dick has now watched his legacy swallow the lives of three of his successors. Even Tim's been brought down by the responsibility of keeping the big, bad Bat up before finally being chased away.
There could only be one Robin in Gotham, but now there is no Robin. There might never be another Robin, because Damian's death could very well kill the Robin title forever.
Jason carefully lays a hand along Damian's face, feeling the give of a shattered cheekbone and quickly shifting until he's cradling the fragile skull in his large hand and brushing the pad of his thumb over perfect black eyelashes.
Damian was such a little shit too.
Jason thinks about the stupid challenge and the damn crow bar. One of his helmets is sitting upstairs in the little Demon's bedroom as a damn trophy. He thinks about the obnoxiously coloured combat boots and the ridiculous Bat-Cow stabled across the Cave.
Jason thinks about all the damage that the Red Hood had rained down upon a ten year old in the year before that while Jason tried to prove himself. Prove what? He'd almost gotten Sasha killed multiple times, worn two incredibly stupid-looking costumes, and personally put a bullet in the kid's chest.
Perhaps Jason could be a little shit on occasion too; stripping Dick and Damian for the big reveal was probably uncalled for. He's not sorry though.
Jason isn't quite sure what had possessed him to take up 'Redbird' mid-mission. Maybe it was the sturdy weight of an eleven year old boy that he had caught on instinct a few weeks earlier. Maybe it was the way that Damian could hold his own in a snark battle, and Jason could be easy with him the way Jason could be easy with Dick or Tim. Maybe it was a premonition of Damian's concerned shout as the Joker's trap took Jason out of the equation for one costly battle.
Jason isn't sure when Damian became Robin to him too.
Maybe it was a little boy shouting as he viciously defended pets larger than him. Maybe it was a soon-to-be teenager ignoring Jason's best advice the way that Jason had once ignored Dick's.
His baby brother is dead.
Jason has known this for approximately nine and a half hours, but it is still sinking in. He's played taxi and bell-boy and therapist. He's left twenty-three messages on Tim's phone, and fielded a handful of calls from Kory that Jason brushes off on principle. Jason's got people to care for here, and Roy needs Kory more right now.
The entire hero community is mourning the death of one of their own. Roy is grieving two children at once. Roy is mourning his own daughter alongside the boy that he had taught to play football only days before.
Jason has an entire house of Bats. Roy can have Kory when he needs her.
Jason doesn't need anyone.
Jason's knees aren't the greatest after years of hard living. He'll blame that for the way he leans heavily on the hospital bed, bracing himself until he ducks his head in close to inhale the scent of Alfred's soap, dried blood, dog, boy, and even deeper than that …
It's been on the edge of Jason's thoughts all day. It's probably been on the edge of everyone's thoughts today. They won't do it of course. Bruce won't do it. It goes against the code of the Bat—the code of heroes.
Damian's skin is cold to the touch. Jason pokes the jut of the boy's lower lip, traces the pointy little chin, and soothes hair back from the stitches close to Damian's ear. He leans back, able to see the outline of a domino mask if he stares hard enough at the boy-hero's face.
Bruce would refuse. It's wrong. It's not the heroic way.
Screw it, Jason can be a hero again tomorrow.
As if supernaturally cued, his phone squawks and there are the coordinates waiting—Jason doesn't recognize the contact number, but he knows Tim.
The nearest functioning Lazarus Pit is less than an hour and a half away; maybe even a little less given the way that Jason drives.
"Gonna fix this, baby boy," Jason croons, memorizing the digits and deleting the evidence. "I'm gonna fix everything." He pats Damian's shoulder gently, tucking the sheet back around the child's torso. He would wrap Damian up better before leaving, but Jason should get some supplies together …
Jason stills. Obnoxiously chipper behaviour whilst looming over the body of a murdered child clearly needs context, but Jason's not sure how much to share. It's not Bruce, but it's the next best thing—Dick.
Jason carefully slides his gaze from Damian to Dick, back, and then to Dick again. Dick's clinging to the ruined cape, fingers hopelessly tangled in the hood like it's his only lifeline. Jason opts for casual, because Dickie might break under anymore strain.
"Got some good news … I'm gonna need to take a quick jaunt to the other side of the state line, but I'll be back lickety-split with a present for you."
Jason watches Dick's face as the older man translates the slew of meaningless words. Dick swallows compulsively, and Jason gives a small, sharp smile that bares his teeth.
"So … now you know where I'm going. And you know what I'm going to do," Jason shrugs carefully. "So the only remaining question is … are you going to stop me like you stopped Tim?"
That was a lifetime ago, Jason knows, because Dick had battled his own demons, and toyed with the line once before regarding the pit. Ultimately, that little indiscretion was neatly resolved thanks to the joint efforts of Damian, Alfred, and Batwoman. Probably didn't even count.
Jason's a good pseudo-brother … he can snoop like no one's business and like the figurative elephant, Jason never forgets. Before Dick's expression had been taut to the point of snapping, which he did when Jason pushed hard enough.
Now it's just wrecked. Dick shakes, and Jason repeats the question. "Are you going to stop me, Dick?" Behind Jason, Damian lies still and cold on a gurney never meant for this purpose. Jason, like Alfred before him, has left the boy's face uncovered, and Dick is captivated by the surreal horror of it.
"I—I can't!" is torn painfully from Dick's chest in two bursts, jagged and scarred. "I can't!"
Because Damian had been Dick's Robin and Dick had been Batman, however briefly. Batman or not, Dick is a Robin first—the first—and now … Nightwing will never be the same.
The line will never be the same.
Jason takes a step back and Dick stumbles into his place. The cape falls to the floor, and Dick grips Damian's thin arms instead. He looks up, the motion giving Jason sympathetic whiplash as the Red Hood slides back against Alfred's cabinets. "We have to go now," Dick gasps, "before Bruce gets back."
"Whoa there," Jason counters, delving into the drawer behind him. "You're not going anywhere, Dickie-bird. You're a fucking mess—even if your skull is a lot tougher than your average bear's, you've been drugged for the better half of today and falling apart the rest. You think Babs didn't tell me about the blood-loss that you suffered?"
"You need me," Dick protests, wild-eyed. "I'm coming with … with you. With him. He needs me, Jay …" Dick jerks as the syringe digs deep into his side, and Jason catches the flailing arm before it can cause either of them damage.
"Yeah, he does," Jason agrees. "We both do," he acknowledges, because why not go the whole fucking way when the world is both upside down and inside out. "We need you safe and here so that when I bring him back to you … when I bring him back … you can hold him and promise that everything will be okay." Dick slips and Jason takes up the slack, pulling Dick's weight to the side and lowering him carefully to the floor as the baby blue eyes disappear under fluttering lashes. "He's going to need that, because until you promise it, nothing will be."
Even unconscious, Dick looks betrayed.
Jason fixes the curtain hastily and snags a pillow off the next bed over to slip under the older man's head. That's all the time he can afford to waste, because Jason's not sure how Dick managed to lose Steph and Alfred in the first place. No time for supplies now.
Jason steps over Dick, and very carefully lifts the tiny form of a fallen Robin.
Maybe Damian isn't the same kind of Robin as Dick had once been, but Jason wasn't either. Steph had done her own thing with pride, and Tim, "the eternal Robin," was perhaps the least Robin-like of them all. It didn't make any of them less Robin; it just made the legacy a little more colourful than even Dick's teenage fashion choices.
"Gonna fix it," Jason promises both of his brothers, and heads straight for the cars. He's thinking of taking Batmobile #2, because he's got a lot of great memories in that car. Jason and the tires go way back.
Jason is about forty-five minutes outside of Gotham when the communicators come online. Jason's ready to argue with Alfred or Steph. He's ready to ignore Bruce, because Jason has chosen this mission and intends to see it through.
He's not ready for the crisp courteous tone that Babs takes. "Batmobile #2, this is Oracle. Confirm status, Red Hood, and please state your intentions in leaving Gotham City."
Jason barks a delighted laugh at the title. He doesn't know if it's a slip or if Babs has reprioritized or maybe he's jumped through the multiverse again. It doesn't matter. "This is the Red fucking Hood, and I am positively dandy, Oracle. Thanks for asking." He grips the steering wheel, casting a quick look to the still form behind him, and adds a layer of steel to his tone. "I am leaving Gotham to right a fucking wrong, and I took a Batmobile, because I dang well felt like it."
"I'm sorry, Red Hood, but given your unauthorized use of the vehicle, I will have to use the homing app on the GPS device of your dashboard to reroute your destination and return you to the Cave," Babs informs him politely.
Jason grins like the madman he is, and yanks the entire GPS out of the dash, cracking it firmly against his bulletproof windows. "That GPS device?" he asks cheerfully, pitching it into the vacant passenger seat.
"Damn," Babs returns just as sweetly. "You horrible criminal, you."
"Figured me out already, huh?"
He can almost hear the emphatic eye-roll that question deserves. "I have a missing body, a stolen Batmobile, and an unconscious Nightwing. Were you trying to be inconspicuous, Hood?"
"Just a little rushed, darlin', that's all."
Babs made a tsking noise. "It's like the lot of you think that I have nothing better to do than go around cleaning up all your messes. 'Wing is heavy, I'll have you know."
"He okay?" Jason asks, because he didn't exactly have time to knock Dick out in a medically-approved fashion earlier.
"He's fine, and stashed away safely. I can give you until B comes back, Hood, but that could be any moment. Are you sure about this?"
"You don't seem all that inclined to stop me," Jason returns sharply.
Babs hesitates, but she's made of sterner stuff than Batman.
"It's not right. I don't think I could do it, I don't think anyone should have to do it, to make that choice, but you have a right to it, Jay. You have that right, and if you manage to pull this off, I won't be at all sorry."
Jason swallows thickly.
After a moment of silence, Babs is professional again. "So you have coordinates, a vehicle, and a plan. I like it—much better prepared than usual, Hood. Now what do you need from me?"
Jason considers for a moment. He's armed—has been since he left to pick up Steph—and there's cash in his wallet, gas in the tank. Jason isn't sure what he'll find when he arrives, but there's not much Babs can do while running interference in Gotham.
"Can you get us both some spare clothes?" Jason asks. "Anything I wear into the pit will need to be destroyed, and the kid's got nothing since Nightwing kind of interrupted the planning process. Warm clothes," Jason considers, "And I dunno—does the kid have some kind of security blanket or something? Anything like that, you could just pack us a quick go-bag and send out Blondie."
"Blondie?" Babs repeats with mock disdain for the nickname. Jason shrugs even though Babs can't see him. It's not like Steph's got a current moniker, and her old ones are mostly taken.
"Blondie's smart," he returns, "doesn't ask questions. If you give her the coordinates and tell her ASAP, then she's gonna get there pronto if she has to hitchhike the whole damn way."
"I'll see what I can arrange," Babs informs him dryly. "Robin's locker has just about everything you could need, and your go-bag was kicked behind the console in the panic of the mask-incident. I've texted …" Babs cleared her throat, "… Blondie."
Jason huffs a half-hearted laugh, dragging a hand down his face. "Yeah, good, that's good … don't suppose there's something with a hood in the kid's locker, O?"
"There's a Bludhaven PD hoodie in Dick's," Babs announced firmly. "Now shut up and drive, Hood. We've got a lot to get done, and little time to do it in."
Jason has never had a problem taking an order from a woman stronger than he is.
He smashes the gas pedal to the floor, and flies down the highway. No one's going to get between the Batmobile and its destination. No one will question. Not today.
Even the sound of the Batmobile's engine at these speeds pales in comparison to the dull roar from the console. Jason thumbs frantically at the volume a moment, before bringing it back cautiously.
"What the … did Blondie just steal the jet for me?!"
"You're welcome," Babs returns, sounding ever-so-slightly frazzled.
Jason hoots, bringing his fist down on the steering wheel in amazement. "Sorry to break it to you, O, and you can't ever tell Little Red this, but Blondie's my favorite." Jason grins ear-to-ear, and this is the lightest he's felt since he had been Robin himself. "I am going to adopt her or marry her or something, because she is way too awesome for the rest of you. Stole the freaking jet," he repeats in awe.
"Less shameless talk, more driving, Hood. That stunt is guaranteed to bring the Batman down upon us, and I am not fighting the big guy for you."
Babs had chosen her moniker well—as usual, her words are prophetic. Exactly fifty-seven minutes out of Gotham, the voice of Batman filled the car.
Jason tightens his grip on the steering wheel. "No."
"Jason, turn around!"
And there goes the code names along with the radio protocol that Bruce had drilled into all their heads before even taking them out of the Cave. Secure line or not, it's a tad hypocritical.
Jason's silence seems to speak for him. Bruce has a tighter rein on his temper and the Batman voice when he speaks again. "Jason, I know what you're trying to do—I understand. But it can't be done, Jason, it just can't."
"I'm living proof that it can," Jason grits out through his teeth.
"The Lazarus Pit is poison, Jason—you know that!" Bruce cannot hope to sway the Red Hood by silent brooding; and his anguish is clipped, but audible. "After everything you've gone through everything you suffered from the Pit—why, Jason? Why do that to Damian?"
The name gets a gentle note. It sets Jason's nerves on end, brings up old insecurities and echoes of the past. Jason shuts them right back down.
"I'm not gonna lie. It's gonna suck. Kid will never be the same, but it's not like surviving a mother's betrayal would have left him in a pleasant state to begin with." Jason forces that hurt back with the others. "It's going to be painful. It's going to be hard. And Robin could very well hate every one of us for it … but at least he'll be alive to do so. And we can spend the rest of our lives making it up to him."
Bruce is speechless for a moment, and Jason chokes on a mirthless laugh when the eventual response is in the cold, hard tones of Batman again.
"If you truly believe that Hood, then why isn't Arsenal with you?" The accusation is like a slap to the face, and Jason's had plenty of those metaphors lately. What's the world got against his pretty face anyhow? "Did you hear me, Hood? Why not give your friend the chance to recover his daughter?"
"It's not the same," Jason forces patience into his body, fakes reason and puts quiet patronization into his voice. Bruce hates being patronized almost as much as Damian. "Lian was a normal little girl, happy childhood, affectionate family. No villain ever laid a hand on her without regretting it—your son was raised by villains. Lian would be permanently altered by the Pit—your son was fucking bathed in it from infancy." Jason winces. "The kid probably couldn't tell the Pit's voices from his own instincts anymore."
Bruce makes a sound like he intends to interject, but Jason raises his voice instead.
"You want to know why I didn't bring Arsenal with me? I didn't bring Arsenal with me, because I know what choice he'll make, and I know it's the wrong one … for Lian."
Roy wouldn't get back the daughter that he had lost, and contrary to his opinion—Roy's guilt is misplaced. Roy might need Lian, but Lian doesn't need Roy anymore.
It's not the same at all.
Jason swallows, and takes Exit 32.
"This isn't the wrong choice for Damian," Jason sighs, letting his head fall back against the seat. "Lian wasn't like the little demon. She wasn't alone when she was killed. She died knowing that her Daddy loved her, that he was a hero and that he was coming for her."
Jason has always felt a kinship with the little girl he'd never met. Her story is his story, and Jason could replace 'Daddy' with Bruce and make the same claims regarding his own death.
It didn't make all things better, of course, because that coin had a weighted flip side.
Jason had fought. Jason had lost. Jason had been betrayed and scared.
And now, Jason can identify with Damian just as easily as with Lian. Jason is going back to the Pit to raise a Robin, and he's not ashamed. "Can you say—for sure—that your son had any of that?"
By the ominous silence, he's probably made the big guy cry his silent manly tears of pain. Jason speeds up, whipping through some little town in the middle of nowhere and attached to the highway by accident. The coordinates are ridiculously precise, and Jason's mapped it as just outside town.
"I'm not saying that I don't have regrets. I'm not saying that I don't want him back—I do. I want him back, and I wanted you. I wanted you back … but we don't get to go back and undo our mistakes, Jason. Batman doesn't give me a special exemption from the natural forces. He can't take back death."
"I'm not Batman."
"You are my son, and this is wrong, Jason!"
Jason throws the car into park on a dirt off-shoot into the woods. "Look, Bruce, this isn't your choice. It isn't your path, and it doesn't follow your rules. Like you said, Batman can't do these things." Jason takes a deep breath. "There are many things that Batman can't do … but like I said, I am not Batman. I'm Red Hood, and I can do these things that you can't." He smiles wearily even though Bruce can't see it. "So I'm going to do this, and you can't stop me."
He turns off the communicator and basks a moment in the silence that follows.
Jason has half-expected Tim to be waiting for him. Lazarus Pits are carefully guarded, and Talia's not one to leave loose ends so close to Batman's domain. Jason can't take on any number of guards while carrying Damian's body.
Tim isn't here, but the path to the Pit is clear. It's not much of a hike to the driveway, and if the mangled surveillance equipment along the way didn't betray Talia's loss of control, then her beaten lackeys do. Jason doesn't even have to step foot on the property to see the neatly incapacitated individuals or the recent signs of warfare to his surroundings. Jason doesn't know who cleared his way, but judging by the extreme and varied violence … it wasn't Tim.
Jason doesn't waste a lot of time thinking about it. Steph is on her way, and probably Bruce too. Talia will notice the lapse sooner or later, and Jason's got too much shit to get done before that happens. He returns to the car, and activates his personal com—a link that Bruce has likely forgotten—as he carefully pulls the shrouded form from the vehicle. "Who do I have to thank for the fucking bouquet of ninja, O?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Hood. I certainly can't hack the phone records for a rogue operative of Batman, Inc. And I certainly can't tell you that Tim's not-so-secret emergency cell made five calls earlier today."
As light as Babs is trying to keep it, Jason can hear the strain in her voice. He appreciates the effort; it distracts him from the dead-weight of Damian in his arms. Jason has never been comfortable with handling bodies no matter how often they cropped up in his line of work.
"I have absolutely no idea why five otherwise unconnected heroines disappeared immediately afterward, and I definitely should not assume that they were together. Perhaps there was some kind of sale. Ravager and Squire are both terribly fond of shoes."
Jason's eyebrows shoot up, and he shifts his burden to better protect a fractured wrist that hangs free of the covering. "Ravager … and Squire."
"Mm-hmm … Supergirl might have been needed off world—she doesn't report to me," Babs 'speculated' quietly. "And I don't even want to begin with the impossibility of keeping track of your Scarlet."
Jason shook his head. "I'm guessing that Black Bat's plane wasn't so much delayed as hijacked."
"Hood, I have complete faith that your sister politely told the pilot what she needed, handed him both her ticket and her wallet, and was promptly given First Class treatment." Babs sighed. "I'll have to cancel her credit cards after a few days."
Jason doesn't argue the sister designation. If he's calling Dick, Tim and Damian his brothers, then it's probably time to sit down and get to know the lady of the house properly.
As he makes his way through the old house and down to the tunnels that Tim's map show leading to an impressive bunker a good hundred feet beyond the property line, Jason eyes the damage with a practiced eye. He can see traces of Sasha's handiwork, and can even see the complete absence of Cass'. He doesn't have a problem seeing Wilson's kid itching for a good fight, and Squire's entrenched deep in the angry stage of her grief, but Jason is thoroughly impressed by the scorch marks in the stone. He never would have thought it of a Super.
Then again, the Super clan isn't as familiar with the al Ghul family and their assorted crimes against humanity. It's not like Supergirl has a close or talkative friend among the other four ladies.
It's not the group that Jason would expect Tim to assemble for the task. Jason would have predicted the latest Wonder Girl, Kory maybe, and Steph. No, that's not right. Jason should have found Tim here, systematically devastating the safe house from within single-handed.
It's beginning to scare Jason now—how Tim is keeping silent, avoiding the rest of the Bats … avoiding Jason.
He has to remind himself to focus on one crisis at a time. The tunnel was in poor shape before the girls had at it. "They really did a number on this place, O," Jason murmurs, edging his way through a narrow section where the wall was less than sturdy. "Must have been a killer party. Remind me to help Tim with the thank-you notes."
Babs is quiet for a long moment. "You know, Robin has never been good with the concept of friendship, Hood. It would probably surprise him to discover that he's accumulated several."
Jason squeezed his burden a little tighter. "Let 'Wing break it to him. Little Demon probably won't bite him for the mere suggestion." They've stopped using the past tense entirely, and this is really happening. This is going to work. He can see the eerie green cast of light up ahead. "O … About those thank-you notes?"
"Flowers," Babs corrects magnanimously.
"Yeah," Jason agrees. "Pretty ones, favorites if you can find that out, and lots of them. Charge it to me. I'm good for it."
"I'll get right on that."
Jason makes one final turn and stares out over the pool. The surface of the water is completely still, the green depths deceptively calm and harmless in appearance. "It's time, Red," Jason finally says. "I'm turning the com off now."
"Understood. Blondie will be there soon, Hood … and thank you."
"It's now or never," Jason quips, removing the earpiece.
There's a distinct lack of ceremony to this; Jason's pretty sure that there was a lot more chanting involved in his adventure. Jason just carefully lowers Damian to the floor, and stretches. He strips off his jacket, shirt, shoes and socks, piling everything in the tunnel outside.
This place isn't like the cave Jason knew. All around them are smooth cement surfaces and carefully cut steps down into the Pit.
The weapons, Jason tosses out into the tunnel because he can't trust Damian's state of mind after the use of the Pit, but his earpiece, he leaves on a narrow table seemingly designed for that purpose.
He untangles the sheet and places it in the tunnel before crouching again. Jason can't remember this part properly, too traumatized and pained to sort out the reality from the nightmare. Sometimes, Jason would swear that he'd been shoved into the pit, and other times he can remember a more dignified immersion—or at least as dignified as a ceremonial dunking can be. Somewhere in his subconscious, the occasion was nothing more than a gentle bath, but Jason's positive that memory is only a dream.
So he carefully picks up the empty body, firmly supporting the head, neck, and shoulders in the curve of his arm as Jason would for an infant. Keeping the small frame cradled in his arms, Jason slowly steps into the pool. The water doesn't burn or flash as he makes his way down the steps and wades out a few feet. It's simply cold, smelly, and gently rippling around his thighs. With Damian still cradled against his chest, Jason crouches and—after a moment of hesitation—fully submerges the child underwater.
He doesn't have to wait long.
Under the surface, Damian's eyes fly open and his body jerks in Jason's arms in what would be a violent jack-knife if the kid's back hadn't been cracked in the fight and then snapped post-mortem. His arms lash out uselessly, and Jason narrowly avoids being struck. There's a muted snap as the spine realigns and the preteen surges out of the suddenly frothing water. Damian's struggles are uncoordinated, his senses having been skewed by the Pit, and even if he held still long enough, Jason would find no sign of recognition in the blue-green eyes.
Jason shifts his grip, sitting down abruptly and hauling the kid into his lap, back-to-chest, and holds on. With his head above the water now, Damian howls in anguish, but Jason holds on.
If they're going to do this, they're going to do it right. This is a one-time ride, and the enormous damage has to heal or Damian will bleed out again in the time it takes to get him back to the Cave. The water is already murky around them, but the cuts are closing, scars are vanishing and with a final crack from the kid's right wrist—Damian's efforts to free himself double.
Jason remembers this part and releases him. Damian scrambles, splashing wildly through the pool and slipping on the steps as he frantically crawls for some imagined safety. Jason's in better control, although the voices are whispering things too quiet to make-out. He ducks a blow and boosts the kid out of the water. Damian is in the far corner before Jason can follow, and extracting him is going to be a bitch.
Nothing fights harder than a trapped animal, and Damian's a trained killer under the fight-or-flight instinct. So Jason pays attention to those respect-the-wildlife field-trips of his youth, gives the kid his space, and sloshes towards the tunnel for the sheet and his clothes.
He doesn't make it halfway there before he's attacked. Damian lands square in the middle of Jason's back, sending the much larger man to the floor and perching there for the terrifying moment where Damian has a hand on either side of Jason's head. The Red Hood rolls, pinning Damian beneath him briefly before breaking the kid's grip and sliding free.
The man finds his feet, but the boy stays crouched. Jason is still between Damian and the exit; he can see the way Damian's entire body tenses for a second attempt and fumbles behind him for the com. He blocks the swing at his head, catches Damian's ankle before the follow-up kick can land and pulls the kid's feet out from under him.
So much for minimizing stress.
Damian lashes out with his free foot, and Jason drops him. He takes the split second where Damian is regrouping to thumb wildly through the minuscule settings on the device. It flies out of his hand with Damian's sliding tackle, and Jason falls to the floor on top of Damian, pinning the struggling boy under his greater weight.
The sounds of destruction that usually accompany Bruce Wayne's erratic displays of emotion emanate from the device and echo in the enclosed space. It appears that Jason has ended up with the Cave frequency rather than Oracle's secondary line which is unfortunate as Damian has started growling.
On the other hand, he's got it on the loudest possible setting so … points to Jason.
"Contrary to the Wayne school of thought, I've been told that tantrums don't solve anything," he ground out through his teeth as a knee found its way to his solar plexus. "What's Blondie's ETA?"
Bruce swears, and that's not helping right this moment. The angry tone makes the kid screech, and throw Jason off of him, eyes searching wildly for the source of the sound.
"Now is not the time for recriminations! Now is the time to get Dick—actual Disney Princess—Grayson on the line!" Jason shouted right back, reaching for the device. Sharp teeth dig into his ankle, and Jason has to bite back some relevant profanity of his own to confirm Babs' sprint to the medical bay.
He reaches for the kid then, and that's a mistake because suddenly the kid is behind him with Jason's arm twisted up and on the verge of snapping.
He's lucky—saved by the sound of Dick's voice coming across the line. "Dami?" It's clouded, confused, and clearly drugged, but Dick's already pulling himself out of it. "Damian?"
At the sound of his name, the kid drops Jason.
Jason rolls out of range as the kid backs away, and risks a quick look. There's something in Damian's eyes that is at odds with his combat-ready stance. "He's listening, Dick," Jason answers, and gets a silent snarl for his trouble.
"Damian, Dami, please … please … it's me. You're safe. You're okay. Jason isn't gonna hurt you; he's gonna bring you home. We're waiting for you. Your dad's right here. Alfred and Babs too. Jason and Steph are going to bring you home, and everything is going to be okay."
Damian's struggling, but at least it's an internal struggle now. Jason crouches and recovers the com, and Damian took an unhappy step forward. "You want it, kid?" Jason offers as Dick pauses for breath. "Come and get it? No? That's alright … catch."
Jason gives a note of approval when the kid does instead of batting the projectile away. "Alright, he's got it now. Keep going, Goldie."
"Dami, you're okay. You're safe. She is never gonna hurt you again, baby boy. You're okay now, and that's all that matters. We're waiting for you, Damian. We love you."
Damian looks as surprised by his words as Jason is … and yes, now there is recognition in the Pit-tainted eyes. The kid takes in his surroundings with something between awe and horror. Knowledge can be a terrible thing.
Jason takes a few steps forward dropping his hand onto Damian's shoulder, as the boy takes a ragged breath and actually allows the contact. Jason gives a quick squeeze as the kid closes his eyes tightly, struggling to remember, to assimilate the events of Before with Now and everything that had happened In-Between. Jason grips the kid's shoulder and does the kindest possible thing he can for someone fresh from the Lazarus Pit:
He knocks the boy out.
As Damian sags back against the wall, Jason gets a better hold and carefully lowers the boy to the floor, reclaiming the com and adjusting the volume. Big brother is understandably pissed, but Jason has every intention of getting the kid back to Dick before Damian wakes up a second time.
"If you don't relax, Oracle's gonna sedate you again," he cuts off Dick's tirade, dragging the sheet back with him. "Now pipe down, because I'm going to fit this to the kid's ear so you can keep talking at him just in case. Scold him for leaving the Cave, ground him, play some Beethoven or read him a fucking bedtime story … I don't care. Whatever it takes to make you feel better and keep him calm."
Jason follows through and finishes drying Damian's hair to the best of his ability. The sheet works well for drying them both off. It's a lot of fabric, and Jason won't feel even a little bit bad about torching it.
There isn't a mark on the kid, and a couple scars that Tim left on Jason last week have faded away. Jason pulls his shirt back on, and wraps the kid in his jacket since a pair of shorts isn't going to keep Damian warm in the dank underground chamber.
Steph should be here soon. Until then, Jason takes a seat and pulls his little brother into his lap. Wrapping an arm around the unconscious figure, Jason rested his head back against the wall and closed his eyes to let big brother's endless words wash over them both.
Little Red Riding Hood saves the cranky wolf cub that followed it back to Grandfather's house. Together, they save the elderly butler and take out the woodcutter with his own flaming sword.
The next time that Jason opens his eyes, it's to find Steph standing over them with tears in her eyes, hands on her hips, and a huge smile across her face.
"The fact that I left my cell phone in my civvies is the only thing saving you from future blackmail," she announces perfectly matter-of-fact.
She's dressed in the purple under-suit of her Batgirl uniform, but sans cape or cowl. She's wearing one of Tim's older masks, and a retractable bo staff is hanging from the belt to her Spoiler uniform. To make it short, she's dressed for trouble and Jason hopes that the blonde isn't as preternatural as her predecessors in the cowl have been.
"You brought the stuff?" Jason croaks out, and Steph indicates the two duffle bags that she had dumped just inside the doorway. "Queen among women," Jay flatters shamelessly as he shifts. "Now get the little demon off before I lose all feeling."
That seems to be all Steph is waiting for, and she reaches for Damian eagerly. She's a lot smaller than Jason and not much bigger than the brat, but she's strong. Steph goes to bury her face in the kid's hair, and Jason has to stop her because of the Pit residue, but she hugs the kid closer anyway.
Jason sheds his clothes with little regard for modesty (they're all Bats here), and pulls on a pair of jeans in need of laundering and one of Arsenal's clean shirts. He recycles today's socks and boots, carefully replacing his guns and knives about his person for easy access.
Trouble can always find a Bat.
Between the two of them, Steph and Jason get Damian into underwear, jeans, socks, a long-sleeved shirt and Dick's hoodie. Babs forgot the shoes, but it's not like the kid is going to walk out of here. Steph probably won't let him go until they get off the property.
Jason lags behind for a moment, taking one last look at the Pit. Tomorrow, it will be gone—destroyed by the Justice League or the League of Shadows. One way or another, it will be destroyed, and Jason fingers the rough burns and what dressing had survived the last sixteen hours.
It would take all of ten seconds to lean over and immerse his face quickly in the Pit.
Ten seconds and a third immersion in the Lazarus Pit to wipe away the evidence of the Joker's last laugh. He could wipe himself off on the discarded shirt and catch up before Steph even realizes that he's fallen behind.
And even if things go spectacularly wrong … it won't matter. Steph's here now. She'll get the boy out, and Jason can keep going the way he always does … as the Red Hood, the man that won't stay dead.
The whispers intensify until they're almost audible, sympathetic murmurs now.
The screams come later.
The Joker doesn't define the Red Hood, and some day the Lazarus Pit won't define Jason Todd either. The man takes another step closer to that day by heaving the broken door panel shut, and hurrying after Steph and Damian.
They take the car. On the way back to where the vehicle is semi-legally parked, Jason discovers that Steph has never actually driven the Batmobile, and that's a crime—it really is.
So he takes Damian from her and crawls into the back seat with the kid. Steph disappears for a second and returns with the rescue blanket from the massive First Aid kit that Alfred had installed. She tucks it around them, leaning in to kiss Damian's forehead and then surprising Jason by twisting to brush a kiss across his bandaged cheek.
"I'm proud of you, Jay."
Then Steph turns around and gives a delighted little laugh as she falls properly into the comfy driver's seat and readjusts it so that she can reach the pedals. They're all giddy with relief now—never mind that the problem's still unsolved. They've got another day, and at the end of the night … that's all anyone can ever ask.
Damian wakes up prematurely, an event that Jason is alerted to by the sudden introduction of an elbow to his already bruised stomach. Other than that brief silent outburst, Damian stays quiet, pressed into Jason's side and listening to Dick's mindless chatter. Jason doesn't say anything, and Damian doesn't clue Dick in so the mangled fairy tales continue.
Goldilocks thoroughly charms the three cranky bat-bears into adopting her through the power of laughter and Prince Charming looks for the owner of a glass slipper among women with no feet.
Shakespeare, Dick Grayson is not. However, ridiculous whimsy is preferable to reality and Damian is focusing on Dick's words like there will be a test later. It's the reason that Jason encouraged the talking in the first place. Big brothers are much safer to listen to than the voices of the Pit and one's own inner demons.
If Damian is not looking for answers yet, than Jason is completely willing to let Bruce give them.
Steph goes through the fucking drive-through and charms the teen at the window with sunny smiles that keep him from asking who she is and what she's doing with the Batman's car. Jason snorts in amusement as she orders him the meatiest meal on the menu and super-sizes it. Without even asking, she orders a salad for the little vegetarian in the backseat, and tops off the order with the biggest milkshake the company serves.
She switches places with Jason in the parking lot because melted ice cream, Steph, and the console would be a dangerous combination. Jason inhales his burger, and after initially picking at the salad, Damian demonstrates a ravenous Pit-induced appetite. Jason hands back the extra side of fries, and Steph strikes up a quiet, meaningless conversation with Dick about some movie franchise that Jason ignores on principle.
They pull over and switch again after ten minutes because Damian flinches every time Stephanie's voice comes from behind his head and he's somehow become fully swaddled in the damn blanket.
Jason and Damian finish off the last half of her milkshake between them before Steph catches on.
Throughout all of this, Damian keeps one hand clenched in his half-up hood and the other curled around the com in his ear. He hasn't said a word since Jason knocked him out, but Damian does allow Steph to give him a hand up and out of the Batmobile once they've reached the Cave.
The kid doesn't have to do that. He wouldn't have done that before.
Now, he clings to Steph's fingers as he marches forward like a good little soldier. His shoulders are straight and his chin is up—a boy-king with the blanket trailing behind him.
Jason understands where the kid is coming from. Damian's made enough digs over the last year that Jason can point out every single check-mark against him that now applies to Damian as well.
He had been disobedient. He had been too weak to defeat an enemy and killed. He had been resurrected in the tradition of the al Ghul in an act that defied Batman's moral code.
All the rules have been broken, and by his own estimation, Damian comes up wanting.
The only thing the kid has left is the hope that—like Jason—the others want him anyway. Jason comes up behind the kid, and musses his hair roughly. The little guy didn't have a clue, but that was something that could be fixed.
Damian didn't have to become Jason. There are plenty of people here to make sure that he doesn't.
They're all lined up at the railing above, eager to see, but trying not to crowd Damian too much, too soon. Sensory overload is a thing, and no one knows the side effects of the Lazarus Pit like Tim Drake, who is standing comfortably wedged between Cass and Babs. Dick's finally gone quiet as he leans against the railing wide-eyed and hopeful. Alfred holds a hand to his heart, a writhing bundle of black fur locked in his arms. In their midst, Bruce stands solemn and still.
It's a daunting tableau, and the silence seems impossible to break.
Suddenly, Titus breaks through their ranks, barreling down the runway and colliding with Damian at a velocity that would have toppled his small master if Jason hadn't caught the boy. Titus barks with joy, tongue lolling and entire body wriggling as if training alone keeps him from jumping on Damian once more.
Then Damian shrugs Jason off, losing the blanket and the hood in the process, and drops to his knees. He hugs Titus' neck fiercely, and mutters the all-distinctive "Tt—you are clearly no better behaved than when I left, Titus."
That's enough for Dick to race forward and haul Damian up into a hug. "I'm sorry," the former-acrobat rasps hoarsely, and they probably should have let the poor guy off the hook when Damian woke up more-or-less peacefully.
Knowing Dick though, Jason doubts that the oldest bird would have been able to hang up.
Damian growls his disapproval of the apology, squirming to regain his feet, but once Dick has reluctantly set him down, the kid hastily returns the embrace with a tight squeeze around Dick's neck.
The rest of their audience continues to watch quietly. Cass smiles benevolently, Babs hides her tears by pretending to clean her glasses, and Tim looks exhausted, but satisfied.
It's not like Jason did all the legwork or anything.
He tries to convey both we-need-to-talk and not-taking-anymore-bullshit through the force of his glare, but Tim pretends to be oblivious and waves Damian up. Jason narrows his eyes; the kid isn't getting off that easy.
It waits though. It waits for Alfred to meet Damian on the steps and deposit the homicidal cat in the boy's arms. "Your animals, Master Damian," the butler says simply with a gentle hand on Damian's shoulder. "Well tended, I assure you."
Damian stroked the animal turning it from wild beast into model pet with just a touch. "Of course, Pennyworth," he acknowledges gracefully. "Thank you."
One last person to face, and Jason isn't imagining the way that Damian's feet are dragging. He stands in front of the Batman—incredibly small and armed only with a kitten. No one speaks. Damian shifts, rocking sock-footed on the stone floor of the Cave, and looks away. "I did not ask Todd to take such measures, Father."
"I am sorry, Father."
"No, Damian … I wanted him to do this," Bruce admits softly, crouching to Damian's level. "I wanted this, even if I couldn't admit it."
The man reaches out as if to lay a hand on Damian's shoulder, but the boy makes the "Tt" sound again and offers him the cat instead. Bruce takes the furry beast in surprise, and Damian folds his arms tightly around his chest. "We should not embrace, Father. Such acts appear to regularly lead to unnecessary tears and there are far too many witnesses for such undignified be—ack!"
Bruce scoops up Damian with his free arm and stands, neatly passing off the animal to a startled Tim. "I don't care about the witnesses, Damian."
Jason moves to join Alfred as they all watch the touching Lifetime moment. "We need to discuss Talia and maybe some mandatory vacations for a few heroes." He nods at the heart-warming pair and indicates Tim for good measure. "And if it's not too much trouble to keep up my room, Alfred? I'm going to be visiting more often."
Alfred gives an approving nod. "I should like nothing better, Master Jason."
It's a little cold for the picnic, but it's hard to say no to Dick Grayson. Jason stretches out along the garden bench with Steph tucked into his side because the wind has a bite to it. Tim follows Damian along the property line as the younger boy paces his territory.
Damian looks stronger somehow, wrapped in a jacket that has been handed-down from Tim and wearing black combat boots not entirely unlike those of his uniform. Whatever Damian takes it into his head to attempt, he throws himself into it whether it's scaling the Manor's roof or racing Tim on their bikes. He's stronger now, but he isn't the same.
The Pit builds your body up by tearing your mind apart, and the Pit-madness is slow to fade.
Tim and Dick have confided in Jason about the nightmares that plague Damian's sleep. In the beginning, they had tentatively taken Damian's newly quiet nature as a good sign, but his temper seemed shorter than ever. The mildest frustration could result in instantaneous rage without warning, and the sting ofhis mother's betrayal is exacerbated by the green waters of the Pit long after the unnatural colour has faded from Damian's eyes.
Damian uses numbers to deal with stress and keep his control. He turns his I-pod up at night to drown out the whispers of the Pit, and Damian will work himself into exhaustion if they don't keep an eye on him.
Steph hugs it out like they've been doing this for years … like there has never been a time when hugs were unwelcome. Jason's caught the kid up more than once in a quick squeeze as Damian come down from a violent panic attack, disguising the gesture as an intent to bear the kid off to Steph or Dick for appropriate coddling. And Jason has caught Tim and Damian bent over the same book inthe library again and again when the both of them should be sleeping.
Tim is back in the manor, and getting some much needed therapy in the form of one-on-one time with Dick, Bruce, and occasionally Jason. So much has gone wrong in the last year, and Tim's taken the brunt of that with next-to-no support system. Damian may have been the one to die, but they could have just as easily lost Tim. It's a sobering notion to consider the way the Bat-Family has been on edge for so long without reprieve.
At Alfred's urging, Bruce is persuaded to take a break in order to spend some much-needed time with Tim and Damian. Dick dons the cowl again in the interim, and there's talk of reviving the two-Batmen routine. Cass has control of Batman, Inc. for the time being, and much of the bullshit bureaucracy and butt-kissing falls away over night.
There's a bit of a shuffle regarding the Batgirl costume. Babs has set it aside in favor of becoming Oracle again—a moving Oracle when necessary. She told Jason that she'd forgotten why she set the Batgirl mantle aside in the first place long before the Joker had ever appeared at her door. She has more to offer the superhero community than just her athletic ability, and she'll put all of it to work for Gotham in the future.
Steph's outgrown the Batgirl mantle in the year that she's been gone. Dick offers her the Nightwing name, and she's been a fan of Superman long enough to know the Kryptonian legend behind the tale. It's her story as much as it's Dick's and while assisting the current Batman with Gotham patrol, Steph rocks the fingerstripes in a tasteful shade of eggplant.
For now, the Batgirl title awaits a future heroine.
Talia is a problem that they can't solve, but Jason thinks that she'll burn out on her own with time. The Bats are concentrating their efforts on Gotham again. If Talia wants the world, than she'll have to fight the super heroes of each country one-by-one. The Justice League has been able to keep Leviathan busy the past few months, and Talia has not yet had the time to persist in her one-sided game against Batman.
In a way, they've given into her demands.
She decreed the end of Robin.
For now, there is no Robin.
Until Damian is comfortable in his own head again, it's too dangerous for him to patrol the streets of Gotham. It's an unpopular decision in the Manor, but Damian grudgingly allows it since Bruce has benched himself right alongside his two youngest sons.
On nights when Damian can't sleep or the call of Gotham is too great, he spends the night with a com-link listening to Dick and Steph patrol for hours at a time. Dick can get through to Damian in a way that the others can't—through the sound of his voice alone.
The other members of the household slowly learn to leave the boy in peace when they come upon Damian tucked into a forgotten corner, sprawled across comfortable furniture or perched above with his hood up and a hand curled over the communicator.
Damian isn't Robin right now, but he's getting better. And he will be Robin again.
Robin never dies.