Batman: The Salem Protocol

Chapter 10: A New Start

The envelope arrived at the manor five days later. It bore no return address, only the words 'for Damien', written in bold black ink, with a flowing hand. It contained nothing but an unlabeled DVD.

"…Believe me, my son, when I say that this decision did not come easily. One day, I hope that we shall be reunited. Until that time, know that I love you, and would give my all to have you with me. Although such a thing cannot be at this time, I have left you in the best pl—"

Damien pressed savagely on the 'eject' button. In one swift motion, he extracted the DVD from the player and hurled the disc across the cave. It sank into the large Tyrannosaur's neck.

"I hate her," the boy said fiercely.

Bruce sighed. "She isn't wrong," he said. "Ra's doesn't react well when those he trusts betray him. He'll be looking for her now, and she has to move carefully. He closed his eyes. "And Interpol is searching for her, as well, with regards to the death of Jezebel Jet." His tone betrayed nothing. "At this juncture," he continued, "anyone with her is at risk."

Damien refused to be mollified. "I can watch out for myself. And for her." He turned his back. "How can she abandon me?" His voice cracked. "It's because Clayface and Jet got the better of me, isn't it?"

Bruce placed a hand on his shoulder. Damien shook it off. "I'm not a baby in need of coddling!" He spun about furiously and bolted into the elevator. "I'm sorry about your precious lizard," he mumbled as the doors shut.

Behind Bruce, Tim sighed. "And just when we finally got Old Rex looking like new again," he said. He picked up a stepladder and approached the dinosaur. "Oh, well. He was in worse shape after he went one-on-one with Hush." Carefully, he mounted the stepladder and tugged the DVD free.

"You patrolling tonight?" He asked.

Bruce shook his head. "I believe that might be premature," he said, looking meaningfully at the elevator. "You and Nightwing should be able to keep things under control without me."

Tim's automatic protest died on his lips. It was obvious that Bruce wasn't in any mood to listen.


When Bruce emerged from the cave some moments later, he found Damien in the kitchen with Jason.

"If it helps," Jay was saying, "at least your mother didn't take you by the hand and deliver you to Joker."

"What?" Dick, who'd been entering the kitchen via the other doorway, stopped, shocked. "You've got to be—no," he corrected himself. "You don't kid, and even if you did, you wouldn't. Not about something like that. I just… wow."

Jason nodded. "Yeah, well." He looked away—and saw Bruce standing behind him. He sighed. "She said she wanted to show me something. Turned out to be a clown with a crowbar." He took in Bruce's expression. "Don't," he snapped. "Nobody could have told you, and the way I'd been acting up to that point, I would've thought I went charging in, too." When Bruce continued to stare at him, Jason turned his back. "Jeez, it's water under the bridge, already. I'm past it, okay?"

Bruce shook his head. "Your mother," he said hollowly, "told me you took the brunt of the explosion."

Jason closed his eyes. "I don't remember. And even if that's true, so what? It didn't save her." He raised his hands abruptly. "First person who tries to hug me gets socked." He opened his eyes once more, to see that Bruce and Dick were both holding their positions. A small smile came and went. "It's over. I only brought it up so the pipsqueak would stop whining, so just quit it." He pushed his chair back from the table. "Crowded in here," he muttered, brushing past Bruce.


Bruce gave him a half-hour before he went looking for him. He found Jason on the back lawn, standing on the edge of a slight depression in the sod. He was kicking the grass absently, as though trying to level the ground.

"The tree was uprooted in the Cataclysm," Bruce said softly.

The younger man nodded slightly. He gave the ground another kick. "I heard about that. The quake, I mean. I wondered why the city skyline looked so different when I came back." He paused. "You rebuilt the manor, too, I see."

"It was necessary."

Jason nodded. "I liked the tree."

"I remember."

There was an awkward silence. Finally, Jason ventured, "How much did Roy tell you?"

"I… appreciate your help at Arkham."

Jason turned to face him. One eyebrow shot up. "Gratitude? From you? You feeling okay?"

Bruce waited. For a fleeting moment, he wished that he'd come outside wearing the cowl. At least, if he'd then removed it, Jason might have understood the action. Words were too easily misinterpreted at times. He held his hands out, palms up, slightly more than shoulder distance apart. "It's… good to see you again," he said.

"I meant what I said before," Jason warned. "No goddamned hugs." He looked down at his feet, and then muttered under his breath "I'm not Dick Grayson."

Bruce's lips twitched. "No, you're not. But he's not you, either."

Jason's jaw dropped. After a moment, he smiled and looked away again. "Yeah, fine, but if you're going to start out by thanking me, who knows what you'll end up doing?"

"Unpredictability…" Bruce ventured with a faint smile.

"…has its advantages," Jason finished. "How long has Alfred been tossing out that line?"

Bruce shook his head. "At least as long as I've known him." He felt himself relax a bit.

Jason's shoulders lowered fractionally. "I came here in the first place because I needed to talk to you."

Bruce nodded. After a moment, when Jason failed to elaborate, he said, "I'm listening."

Jason met his eyes. "I… actually think you are," he marveled. He took a deep breath. "I… guess you heard about how I went…" he broke off. "Well, Roy called it 'star trekking across the multiverse'." He winced. It hadn't sounded that stupid when Roy had said it.

Bruce, though, was nodding. "Harper has a… unique way of describing a situation." He took a half-step closer. "I did hear." After another moment, he added, "I imagine that it may have been unnerving to find oneself in a place that appeared to be familiar at the outset, and then…"

"No," Jay considered. "Most of it was pretty weird from the start." He took another breath. "Of course, there was the world where you killed the Joker after I… died."

Bruce tensed. "Noted."

"Noted?" Jason raised an eyebrow. "Is that all you can say?"

"What would you like me to say?" Bruce asked. "I suppose that in my counterpart's… reality, he had his reasons. I don't share—"

"I thought you were listening," Jason snapped.

"I have been," Bruce shot back. "You found a reality where I—or some version of me—did what you wished I had—"

"I. DIDN'T! DAMN IT!"

Bruce's jaw snapped shut.

"It wasn't you," Jason continued. "Oh, he had your name and gadgets and everything, but…" He whirled around again. "I don't do sappy," he muttered. "Look, whatever I thought I wanted, he wasn't it. That guy wasn't someone I'd want to Robin for." He paused. "Even if the costume he gave me was off the hook."

"What?"

Jason couldn't help smiling. "Rad? Groovy? Sheesh, brush up on your street-talk." He sighed. "Anyway, I thought you'd like to know."

Bruce's lips twitched. He sobered quickly. "Thank you," he said. "I…" He let out a long, slow breath. "Dealing… permanently with Joker did cross my mind. At the time."

"Yeah? What stopped you?"

"Superman."

Jason blinked. "Damned interfering alien," he muttered. "Typical." Then he turned away so Bruce wouldn't see his smile.

He flinched when the hand came down on his shoulder, but made no effort to remove it.


"Tim said you're staying in, tonight." Dick's fists pounded rhythmically against the black cylindrical punching bag.

Bruce made a non-committal sound and approached the exercise mat. He assumed a cross-legged position, closed his eyes, and drew a deep breath.

"There a reason?"

Bruce ignored him and tried to find his center. His world narrowed to a single pinpoint of black on a white field. He focused on the pinpoint, drew it to him, became one with it, became at one with himself. When he opened his eyes, though, Dick was sitting opposite him, in the same cross-legged position, waiting patiently.

"C'mon, don't shut me out," he said. "You haven't been out on patrol for nearly a week." He frowned. "This wouldn't have something to do with… with falling off a trapeze, would it?"

Bruce blinked. Then he remembered their earlier conversation. "No," he said finally. "It's only that," he sighed, "I need to do something else for now."

"Bruce?"

Without another word, Bruce strode over to the main computer, and typed in a command. "I just want to make sure," he said under his breath, "good. He's not down here." He turned to face Dick. "Damien," he began, "presents a problem."

To Dick's mind, Damien presented several. He waited for Bruce to continue, though.

"When he came back with me, the first time, months ago," Bruce began haltingly, "I… left him with Alfred and Tim, and went back to work. I'd assumed," he looked away, "well, Talia had told him who I was and what I did. I'd thought to leave him at the manor and get to know him in the morning."

Dick nodded understandingly, but wondered how the 'world's greatest detective' could sometimes be so clueless about human nature.

Bruce's voice dropped to just above a whisper. "He injured Alfred and nearly killed Tim."

"I heard." And then, almost immediately, he said, "But you can't blame yourse—" He caught himself. Oh, yes, Bruce could. And usually did.

But Bruce was shaking his head. "It's true I couldn't have predicted his actions. However, bringing a young boy halfway around the world, leaving him in unfamiliar surroundings, and turning him over to complete strangers…" He sighed. "I do bear some responsibility for his reactions."

Much as he wanted to protest, Dick mentally conceded the point.

"I can't let it happen again," Bruce continued. "He's just had everything else ripped away from him. I'm… the only person he has left." He shook his head. "This isn't one of my strengths—I'd be a fool to think it was, but… I need to work with him, and not as Batman." He closed his eyes.

"Bruce…" Impulsively, Dick put a hand on his arm.

Bruce took another breath. "I… when you first came here, Dick, I didn't know what to do. I saw the accident, I knew what you were going through and I wanted to help you… but I didn't have the faintest idea how. So," he smiled ruefully, "I left you with Alfred and went out on patrol. Feeling," he added, "like a coward." He patted Dick's hand. "I didn't know how to talk to you, then. Or maybe," he admitted, "it was that I was… afraid of having to revisit my own memories." He opened his eyes again, and met Dick's squarely. "When you found the cave, and you asked me to train you, I found that it was easier to think of myself as a teacher than as a father." He placed a hand on Dick's shoulder. "Easier, not more accurate." He sighed. "What I'm trying to say, is that, until now, I've started by training soldiers and ended by raising sons. With Damien… I have to reverse that. He doesn't need a teacher."

Dick nodded his comprehension. "He needs a father."

"He needs a father who isn't out at all hours of the day and night," Bruce amended. "Right now, I'm the only one he listens to. Unless that should change, I can't expect Alfred—or any of you—to look after him. Nor should you have to." Bruce took a deep breath. "So. Until further notice, the cowl's yours."

Although his heart did leap at Bruce's words, Dick shook his head. "I… don't honestly think it'll fit me anymore," he said. "I'm honored. Seriously. And if you want Nightwing back in Gotham for the duration, I need a couple of weeks to get things squared away in New York, and I'll be on the next train or plane back here. But those," he pointed to the uniforms visible through the half-opened door to the costume vault, "I put them on the same level with Jackie Robinson's number 42. If you aren't going to wear the suit, then I say 'retire it'."

"Gotham needs—"

"A protector. Or several." Dick grinned. "It's had Robin for awhile, now. I already said I'd come back. We can pull Cass out of the Outsiders, if she's willing. Jay might even…"

"Jason's moving to Star City," Bruce interrupted. "Harper suggested it."

Dick blinked. Then the smile was back. "You know," he said, "that might actually work out decently."

"I concur." There was a long pause.

"Bruce," Dick ventured finally. "About the suit…"

Bruce smiled faintly. "I don't doubt I'll be back in it before too long. But for now," he took another breath, "let's call it a leave of absence."

"Understood."

Bruce nodded. "Dick," he said hesitantly, "you… have no objections to Damien being here, correct?"

Dick shook his head. "He's your son. I get that."

"So are you." He waited for Dick to meet his eyes again. "And I don't want you thinking otherwise for a moment."


"But it's only fair that I receive the larger bedroom, Timothy!" Damien's voice was high with disapproval. "First, I need the extra space for my combat katas, as Father has advised me that he doesn't wish me downstairs unsupervised."

Only Damien, Tim mused, could somehow make being barred from the cave sound desirable.

The boy continued. "You don't require nearly as much space, if all you're doing is sleeping and studying."

Tim didn't look up from his smart-phone. "I'm keeping the room, Damien." He continued to text.

"Second, as an Al-Ghul, I'm far more deserving of the space than you are."

Tim continued messaging Zoanne. "We don't always get what we deserve. As you know."

"Third," Damien's voice rose irritably, "I am Father's only natural son…"

"In Shakespeare's day, that term would be synonymous with 'bastard'. You know that, don't you?"

"…whereas you and the others, Drake, are only adopted!"

Tim stood up with a sigh and pocketed the smart-phone. "Damien, 'adopted' means Bruce chose us. He's stuck with you," he said mildly. "Now, if you have a problem with where you're sleeping, I'd suggest taking it up with Bruce. If you want me, I'll be in my room."

He strode past the sputtering younger boy.

Damien's eyes narrowed. "You dare turn your back on an al Ghul?" He sprang at Tim's retreating figure.

Tim had been anticipating something of the kind. He waited until Damien was committed to his course, and then sidestepped. The smaller boy rolled as he hit the floor. Before he could rise again, Tim grabbed him by the ankles and hoisted him up. "It doesn't work so well when your target is expecting the attack, does it?"

"Put me down, Drake!" Damien's arms flailed madly.

"Not until you promise to behave."

"Release me, or I'm telling Father!"

Tim pretended to consider. "No. No, I don't think I will."

"Well," said a voice from behind him, "I do."

Tim let out a long breath. "Hi, Bruce." He realized how it had to look—him restraining a boy slightly more than half his age, and a good head-and-shoulders shorter. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Dick was standing next to him. "Damien and I were just having a discussion." He carefully lowered his captive to the ground.

Bruce cast him a withering look. "You're practically an adult, Tim. Act it."

Tim half-turned toward him. "I…" he shook his head. "Forget it. You can review the security tapes late—"

Damien surged upward and kicked Tim in the shins.

Dick grabbed Tim's arm and pulled him aside as Bruce pushed ahead and gripped Damien's shoulders with both hands. "Look at me," he ordered.

Still bristling, Damien obeyed. "Nobody ever takes my side!" He protested. "Timothy—"

"This will stop," Bruce said quietly. "There are close to one-hundred fifty rooms in the manor alone, to say nothing of the outbuildings. Surely the two of you don't need to be right on top of one another?"

"He had no provocation, Father!" Damien shot back, "I merely suggested that he yield me the larger bedroom in recognition of my status within this household and…"

Bruce raised an eyebrow. "I see." He looked over his shoulder. "Tim?"

Tim sighed. "If you want me to give it up, I will. It's not worth making a big deal over, I guess."

Damien began to smile. Bruce's next words checked him.

"It's up to you, Dick. Do you want your old room back?"

Dick blinked. "What?"

"You're moving back here?" Tim asked, excited.

"Think you can deal?"

"Yes!"

Dick grinned. His expression sobered. "Listen, I wasn't expecting this. If you'd rather keep the room… I mean, I put up a few circus posters and in a few days time, any bedroom here would…"

"No," Tim shook his head. "It's fine."

Dick's eyes narrowed. "Really?" He asked. "Just like that?" He shook his head. "You're giving it up awfully easily." He wrapped Tim in a headlock. "I bet there's something wrong with it! You painted the window shut, didn't you?"

"No!" Tim fought back a laugh as he felt Dick grind his knuckles into his scalp.

"Spilled sulfuric acid on the rug?"

"No!"

Dick ruffled his hair. "You can't fool me! You must've done something? Booby-trapped the closet?"

"N…" Tim stopped laughing. His eyes grew wide. "Not… the closet," he said faintly. He twisted around in Dick's grip, and cast a meaningful look in Damien's direction. "I'll be back," he mumbled, breaking loose. "I just gotta fix… something."


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