Batman: The Salem Protocol

Chapter 9: Face to Face with the Devil

"Heard anything from either team, yet?"

Robin kept his eyes on the road. "Negative, Oracle." He veered his motorcycle to the right to allow the minivan behind his to pass. "You?"

"Still nothing." There was a pause. Then, "What's your twenty?"

Under his helmet, the young man made a face. "Okay, where'd he hide it, this time?"

"Excuse me?"

"The tracker, the homing beacon, the satellite interface… whatever it is you're using to keep tabs on me." He didn't bother to hide his irritation. It was hard to maintain any kind of privacy when the majority of the people with whom he interacted were trained detectives. Trained to mind other people's business. The fact that he possessed the same skills did nothing to mollify his frustration.

"Robin…"

"I know, I know. He swore you to secrecy," he sighed. "I'll find it later."

"Tim…"

"Look, I'm not mad at you. I just wish that once in awhile my… adoptive father wasn't Big Brother, 'ya know?"

"Timothy Jackson Drake, will you let me get a word in edgewise?!"

He started, pulled ahead of the semi and took a right turn onto a side street.

Oracle continued. "I can hear your 'cycle through the commlink. Not to mention the other traffic. I realize that you've been running around like 'mini-Bruce' lately, but could you, somehow, not adopt the paranoia that goes with it?"

Tim felt his face grow hot. "Sorry, Oracle," he mumbled. If he was such a great detective in his own right, why did he still jump to conclusions? He slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid hitting a cat. The cat—not much more than a kitten, really—gave him a baleful look and streaked back to the sidewalk.

He heard her long-suffering sigh. "Forget it. I guess you're headed for Arkham?"

"Beats waiting around in the cave." He paused. "Thanks again for talking me through fixing that pipe. If it had started gushing again…"

"Don't mention it. And Tim?"

He revved the motor again. "Yeah?"

"I'm relying on you to assess the situation before you go charging in. If you need reinforcements, for pity's sake, tell me. I can get a discreet force into the city with a few minutes notice, but I need that notice."

"Understood. Robin out." He terminated the communication. With any luck, the others would have the situation under control by the time he got there—because if they didn't, whatever decision he made would be bound to tick off either Batman or Oracle. And he wasn't at all sure which of the two would let him off the hook more easily.


If the truth were told, it wasn't much of a fight. Black Canary had honed her cry to perfectly pitched precision. As the ululating sound waves found their target, Clayface clapped hammy hands to either side of his head and shrieked, "I'm melting! I'm melting! Oh, what a world, what a world… Who would have thought…"

Red Arrow dispatched one of his namesake missiles directly into Clayface's gaping maw. Almost instantly, an uneven coating of ice sprang forth, then spread to coat the mud puddle that he was fast becoming. Two more arrows completed the job.

"Damien!" Talia cried.

The clay cocoon had crumbled with its creator. The small boy rolled over on the table. "M-Mother?"

Talia swept him up and crushed him to her. It was almost a full minute before he remembered that they were not alone, and began squirming to get loose. "Really, Mother," he muttered, "not in front of the help."

He broke free and took off for the door. Red Jay grabbed him by the collar. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Unhand me, Todd. My father needs my aid."

Jason glanced down at him and raised an eyebrow. His gaze flicked meaningfully to Talia, to Roy, and finally, to Dinah, who had finished with Clayface and was now taking a long swig from a canteen.

Damien seemed to wilt slightly. "I… I heard Simon Hurt speaking with the strump…" He broke off as he saw Talia frown. "With the woman he sent to distract Father. They're laying a trap for him in the 'rec room'."

"You know where that is, kid?" Roy asked.

"Tell this oaf to let me go, and I'll find it," the boy snapped.

Black Canary held up a pendant that she had been wearing under her costume. "Oracle, do you read? We need the most direct route to the rec room from our current position." She grinned at Damien. "I know it's not as much fun as exploring every nook and cranny, but it'll get the job done faster."

"Do not seek to patronize m—"

"Thanks, Oracle!" Dinah interrupted. She headed for the exit. "Come on, people, it's this way."

"Hey, wait," Roy protested. "We're taking the twerp? He's just a kid, Canary."

"I'm perfectly capable of holding my own in a fight you… you… lout!"

"Damien!"

The boy turned bewildered eyes on Talia. "Mother? You're taking their part? Over… mine?"

Talia's only response to him was a hard frown.

Dinah sighed as she watched the exchange. "It's not like we've got a choice, Arrow. Where would you want to leave him?"

"Where would I want to?" Roy rolled his eyes. "You really don't want me to answer that." He shook his head. "Ah, well, maybe we'll pass a nice comfy cell on the way."

The last thing that Clayface heard as the lounge door shut was Damien's outraged, "Mother!"


Nightwing strained against the hands that held him fast, but there was no give. Le Bosseu dangled the second steel card tauntingly in front of him—now bringing it close to his cheek, now whisking it away.

"I wonder," he said, "which of you will live long enough to watch the other die?"

"D-die?" A voice exclaimed in shock. "You're planning to kill them?"

Nightwing blinked. He recognized the voice, but those words…

"Hold on one cotton-picking minute, Quasimodo!" Joker roared. "I realize that when it comes to the Bat-boob I might have to take a number, but if ANYBODY around these parts is going to off a Robin… it's gonna be me."

Okay, now that was the Joker he knew and loved… and had to get the hell away from.

Joker dashed forward. "Give me that!" He made a grab for the card.

Le Bosseu snatched it away. "Keep back, Jo-ker," he warned, "or you may receive this trink-et in a way which would not be to your pleasure."

The Frenchman's accent was stronger under stress, Nightwing noted clinically.

"Oh, yeah, Igor?" Joker chortled. "You want a piece of me?" He planted his feet apart and flung his arms wide. "Well, come and get it!"

Le Bosseu snarled. "Hold this one a moment longer," he jerked his head in the direction of Nightwing and his captors, and turned to face the Joker. "You are beginning to annoy me, M'sieur."

Joker giggled. "Really? Should I tremble? Should I shiver?" His grin dimmed. He took two steps forward and then dropped to all fours. "Should I fall down on my knees and beg for mercy?" A sob escaped him. "Well?" He looked up slowly, his eyes large and pleading. "Should I?"

The hunchback blinked. He glanced uncertainly about, as though seeking advice from the others in the room.

That was when Joker leaped up and savagely hissed. "I DON'T THINK SO!" All at once, two playing cards materialized, one in each hand.

Le Bosseu shrank back for a moment. Then, he chuckled. "But those two are both red-backed, M'sieur. You need one of ea—gagh!" Twin streams of red liquid suddenly spurted forth from somewhere below his chin. At the same moment, he felt as though something had just brushed his throat. Then, all at once, there came a sharp pain. He struggled to draw a breath, but found that he could not. Even in his panic, he realized that Joker's hands were now shockingly empty. An expression of horror came onto his face as he slumped to the floor, both hands flying to his neck… from which the two cards now protruded. He made a horrible gurgling sound as he struggled to apply pressure to the wounds. Blood continued to flow through his fingers, as his movements quickly grew weaker.

Nightwing clenched his teeth. He doubted that there was anything he could do for the man, but Joker's little stunt seemed to have frozen the others in shock—which gave him the perfect opportunity to make his move. Quickly, his thumbs located the two buttons he needed. They had been built into his gloves, each one situated over the first bone of the middle finger. Pressing them singly would do nothing—something as innocuous as a handshake would fast become a risky proposition, otherwise. However, if he pressed both buttons simultaneously, not with the pads of his thumbs, but with the narrow metal strip, which had been incorporated into the fabric of his gloves directly over the tips of his thumbnails, he would electrify the outer layer of the suit.

An instant after he did, two bloodcurdling shrieks attested to the success of that move. He winced. Scorpiana's metal gloves must have made her particularly vulnerable to his attack. On the plus side, his arms were now free—and there was only one goon left to get out of his hair… literally.

Nightwing reached up, grasped his captor's hand with both of his own and pressed it tightly to his scalp. At the same time, he extended his right leg behind him. Leaning back, he pivoted right, and lowered his chest to his right thigh. Then, still holding his attacker's hand to his scalp, he rose up, turning the goon's arm in a spiral motion.

The man behind him struggled, then screamed as Nightwing's maneuver first locked his arm, and then the violent force of the action dislocated his shoulder. His hand opened, releasing his grip on the vigilante's hair.

Nightwing delivered a mighty kick to his former captor's ribs. One quick look told him that Le Bosseu was indeed beyond help. He allowed himself one fleeting instant of regret—despite what the hunchback had planned to do to him, it was a messy way to go, after all. Then he spun and raced toward the opposite end of the room. Batman was down… and it looked like it was up to him to get them both out of here.


Jezebel moved the wheelchair back and stepped on the switch that had been concealed beneath it. "It's safe to go down," she said.

Strange nodded. "Help me with him, then," he said, as he stepped off the dais and advanced toward Batman. He glanced up. "Don't bother with that now!" He snapped, flicking his finger irritably toward the straightjacket in her hand. "The neurotoxin will keep him in a state of paralysis for several hours. But he," Strange pointed to Nightwing, who was slowly cutting a swath through his opponents, even as they sprang forward to intercept him, "will reach us in a moment. So, if you'd be so good as to help me load his mentor into the chair so that we can get out in the confusion, I… eh?"

A red-fletched arrow skimmed past Strange's cheek. "This a private party?" Roy asked, "Or can anyone join?"

"Private!" Jezebel snapped. She dashed back to the dais and darted behind the screen. Swiftly she bent down and removed her shoe.

"Come on, come on!" She whispered as she tugged at the platform heel. If she could just get the C4 loose, and extract the detonator cap from its protective casing before one of Batman's allies realized what she was doing, it would be a simple matter to blast open the sealed fire exit door.

Someone plowed into her, wrapped spindly arms about her knees and bore her to the ground. "Hello, again, strumpet," Damien said coldly.


"You're not getting past me twice!" Two-Face lunged forward, a folding chair raised high over his head.

Nightwing rammed a vicious left hook into Two-Face's unprotected gut. The former DA's hands flew open. Nightwing caught the chair's backrest and brought it down on his opponent's head for good measure.

Two-Face's eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped to the floor in a daze.

Without hesitation, Nightwing whirled and slammed the chair into Joker's face, sending the clown down for the count.

Nightwing kept going. He didn't recognize his newest assailants. Maybe they'd shown up after he'd moved out of Gotham. Maybe he just didn't know them without masks or makeup. It didn't seem to matter. A kick here, a head-butt there, feints, jabs, evasions, and blocks combined in a relentless ballet. He moved steadily, keeping one eye on his attackers, and the other on his goal.

"Hold it!"

Nightwing froze. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Roy standing stock-still, one arrow still fitted to his bowstring.

Strange smiled. "Joker actually had a good idea, for once. Drop the bow, archer. And raise your hands. That goes for both of you," he added. "Unless," he grasped one of the ears of Batman's cowl and tilted the prone vigilante's head back, "you think that you can get this card out of my hand before I slice his throat with it."

Red Arrow complied with a scowl.

Strange motioned for him to move next to Nightwing.

A piercing cry rent the air, setting both vigilantes' teeth on edge and raising the hairs on the backs of their necks. The cry's effect on Strange, however, was a bit more intense. He slumped to the floor, and curled up on his side, his fists pressed tightly against his ears. Talia was there in a moment, pressing a curved dagger against his jugular. "Turnabout," she said grimly, in a voice that sliced through his whimpers as easily as the blade could cut through his skin. "I do hope you attempt something idiotic. I would enjoy a reason to drive my point deeper."

Roy breathed a sigh of relief and stooped to retrieve his weaponry. "Thank you, ladies!"

Dinah grinned back. "Anyone seen Jezebel?"

Nightwing shook his head. "She must've bolted." He approached Batman cautiously, keeping alert in case Strange still had something up his sleeve.

"Well," a lilting voice called, "I didn't go far." Jezebel Jet stepped around the screen and onto the dais, half dragging a small limp form.

Talia's eyes grew wide.

"DAMIEN!"


"R to O, do you read?"

Barbara's voice came crisply over his commlink. "Go ahead, R. Talk to me."

"Nobody's out here. No guards, no inmates, none of our people. I've been monitoring GNN and police band, and there've been no reports of a breakout, so unless you've heard something on a more discreet frequency…"

"I haven't," she interrupted. "The rest of the city's actually having a pretty quiet night." She paused a beat. "For Gotham, I mean."

Robin exhaled slowly. "That means everyone's still inside. Okay." He thought for a moment. "I'm going to reconnoiter the perimeter… see if I can pick up any hints as to what's going on in there, before I go charging in." He hesitated. "I don't suppose you could arrange to have the navy on standby?"

"No," Oracle said, considering. "But SWAT and the Gotham Harbor Patrol?" She let the smile spill into her voice. "I think, it's time to check in with my father."

"Can you let the others know I'm out here if they need me?"

The smile dropped. "I've been trying, but either they're in a dead spot, or something's jamming me. I'll keep trying to break through, but I've got a feeling that, by the time I do, the question'll be moot."

"Understood, O. R out."

Barbara sighed. She was used to running operations from a monitor womb, but this was one of those times when she wished that she were closer to the main action. Platinum Flats was just too far away. She missed the Clocktower.


"Your father warned me that you might be difficult," Jezebel smiled. Behind her, Hugo Strange stirred, struggling to rise to his feet. She turned to Black Canary. "Children's eardrums can be so delicate, I find," she said. "I'm told that you can pinpoint the effects of your cry, but I'm sure you wouldn't want to chance it." She hauled the unconscious boy forward and hoisted him aloft, so that his head rested against her shoulder. She winced, and inhaled a bit more loudly then usual. Damien must have put up a good fight. "Particularly not now—OH!"

A nightarang flew past, slicing the top of her ear. Startled, she released Damien's legs and slapped her hand to the side of her head. Red Jay took a flying leap and tackled her about the waist, using his weight to bear her to the ground. Damien slid from her grip as she went down. "She won't, I will," Red Jay snapped.

Damien began to stir. Red Arrow scooped him up and passed him to Talia.

"Arrow!" Nightwing snapped. "Help me. We have to get him out of here." He tossed a flash-bang overhand, aiming it over Strange's head. Reflexively, the psychiatrist's eyes followed its trajectory. So, of course, when it went off, he was looking directly at it. Strange cried out and stumbled blindly into the dais. If Batman hadn't been in such bad shape, Nightwing might have tossed out a quip. As it was, he was too busy getting his mentor upright. Bruce was virtually deadweight. But, at least, he was breathing normally. Dick, on the other hand, was starting to feel… He suppressed a wave of dizziness. They were almost out of this. He just needed to hang on another minute or two… "Red Arrow, now!"

Roy took another moment to dispatch a barrage of flare-, net-, and sonic boom arrows, which trapped some of the remaining inmates and sent the others dashing for the exits. Then he bent down and draped one of Batman's arms over his shoulders. Nightwing did the same. Slowly, the two young men rose. Nightwing's knees buckled, but he straightened almost instantly.

"You okay?"

Nightwing nodded. "Let's move."

"What about…" Roy let his voice trail off. Dick was carefully putting one foot in front of the other, but it was obvious that he was struggling. Much as he hated the idea of letting Jezebel and Strange get away, his priority had to be… His eyes grew wide. "Red Jay! Behind you!"

Jason twisted, spun, and planted his palms flat on the floor. As Hugo Strange charged wildly toward him, the young vigilante violently snapped into a handspring and rammed both feet into the psychiatrist's mid-section. Strange fell heavily to the ground.

Jezebel took advantage of the momentary distraction to get to her feet and bolt for the exit. Talia sprang to intercept her, locking her hands about the other woman's wrists.

Jet struggled, trying to shake free.

Black Canary grabbed hold of Damien.

"I can walk," the boy said sulkily.

"Great," Dinah said. "Unfortunately, we need to run."

Damien opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it as Dinah hurried him along.

"Go!" Talia ordered. "Get them both to safety! I'll hold off your pursuers!"

No need to ask which two she meant, Roy thought cynically. She might be too diplomatic to say it to their faces, but Damien had only been repeating what he'd been taught when he'd referred to them as 'the help' earlier. He shrugged mentally. Whether she was requesting or commanding their assistance, they were still bound to provide it. Besides, she was buying them time.

They vacated the room as quickly as they could, carrying their injured with them.

Red Jay was the last. "You know," he said, "Ra's won't let you alone after this."

"I can take care of myself, Jason," Talia said loftily.

"Yeah?" He rolled his eyes. "Well, guess what, Momma Al Ghul? It's not just you, anymore." He pulled the plastic tie around Strange's wrists and tightened it with a vicious jerk. He started to say something else, then shook his head disgustedly and took off after the others.

Jezebel laughed. "It must gall you, Demon's Daughter," she said as she tried to break free of the other woman's grip. "You spent how many years waiting and sighing for your…" she giggled, "Beloved. Whereas I found my way into his heart… and his world… in a matter of weeks!" She smirked. "Face it, sister. You contended. I won. His love, his trust, his secrets." She got one hand loose, but had scant opportunity to make use of it before Talia raked her fingernails down her cheek. Jezebel shrieked and slapped Talia across the face.

Talia's head reeled back, but she recovered quickly and rammed her knee into Jezebel's stomach. Then, she buried her fingers in the mass of tight reddish curls and pulled forward.

Jezebel grunted in pain and rained rhythmic blows onto both sides of Talia's midsection.

Something dropped out of Talia's pocket with a metallic clank. It bounced once. Then, there was a softer clink as a small piece of the device fell loose. For one instant, Talia froze in horror. Then, her expression hardened. She pivoted a quarter turn, released her grip on Jezebel's hair, and gave the woman a hard shove backwards.

She saw Jezebel land on the grenade. Then she turned tail and ran. She was almost to the door when the shock wave from the explosion carried her forward, out of the room, and slammed her into the corridor wall. Talia took a few moments to catch her breath. Then, carefully, she looked behind her. It only took her a split second to ascertain that Jezebel Jet would never again menace her son or her Beloved. She looked up and down the hallway. There was no way to be sure which way the others had gone. Shakily, she made her way toward the stairwell. The police or the Detective's allies would arrive momentarily, and wanted to be well away from here by the time they did. She bit her lip and made her way down the stairs, to the main floor, and then out to the parking lot.


"Where are they?"

Talia whirled and found herself eye to intense eye with a glaring youth. She turned her back abruptly. "I haven't the faintest idea."

"You mean you left them," Robin accused.

Talia stiffened. "You're trying to sound like him. Believe me, boy, you aren't anywhere near ready." She let out a long breath. "When I saw them last, they were fine."

He couldn't believe that he was asking this but, "Where's your son?"

"With them. It's… better this way." She bit her lip. "I need to leave."

"Talia…"

Her long brown hair swung in an arc as she spun back to face him. "Don't try to stop me!"

Robin took a surprised step back. Was Talia… crying? "I won't have to," he said quietly. "Harbor Patrol has the asylum surrounded, and the bridge accesses are blockaded." She was crying, her dark eyeliner smudging and streaking down her cheeks. Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, he handed her a tissue. She accepted it in silence, dabbed at her eyes, and then pulled a small compact case out of her pocket and flipped the lid open.

"What happened in there?" He asked finally.

Talia shook her head. "I think… perhaps it would be best if I spoke to you only in the presence of my attorney."

Robin shrugged. "Suit yourself." He had to admit he was surprised, though. He wouldn't have thought her the sort to retain a lawyer. He blinked. Talia wasn't using a brush to reapply her make-up—she was tapping the inside of her compact with white-gloved fingers… and they weren't picking up any powder! That wasn't a compact, it was…

In the distance he heard a faint whine, and a chopping motor. The sounds grew louder. At first, Robin thought that it was a SWAT helicopter, but the paint was wrong. The chopper dropped lower, until it hovered directly overhead, and only a few feet above the asylum's second story. The passenger door opened, and a rope ladder uncoiled. Talia seized it the instant it came within reach.

Robin readied his grapnel. Two warning shots hit the grassy turf mere directly before him. He reeled and staggered back, dropping the device.

"Until we meet again, stripling."

The helicopter descended another few feet. Talia hesitated on the ladder. "Tell my Belo—tell Bruce…" But the motor drowned out anything that she might have said.

Robin watched helplessly as she climbed inside and shut the door behind her. Then, the 'copter rose higher into the sky, although it was several long minutes before he stopped hearing the loud chop-chop of the blades.

He shook head in annoyance, bent down to retrieve his grapnel, and turned back toward the asylum. As he approached the front door, a balding man in the charred and tattered remains of a Batman costume lurched unsteadily out. Strange looked… pretty badly… hurt. Tim's lips twitched at the unintended pun. Then he fired the grapnel, releasing a thin titanium cord, which snaked around the doctor's ankles. Strange struggled, but Robin had him subdued and secured in a matter of moments.

"O?" He said quietly into his commlink. "Do you read?"

"Loud and clear," she said immediately. Her tone grew warmer. "Canary just made contact. They're all safe. Now here's how to get to them…"


"F-father?"

"He'll be fine," Jason snapped. "Go play with Clayface." He cast a nervous glance at the door, through which they'd entered the cave. It would be just their luck if a stray inmate happened on them, now.

Damien's response was short, clear, and utterly unprintable. Jason ignored him and covered Bruce with another blanket.

"Easy," Dinah helped Dick to a sitting position and tilted a cup of water toward him so he could drink. "Easy. Don't gulp it too fast."

Dick nodded. "Throat's dry," he said. He grimaced and closed his eyes. "I hate being sick."

"You're not sick, you're drugged. Big difference." She placed a hand on his forehead. "It'll wear off."

She set the cup down on a nearby table. When she looked back at Dick, he was asleep.

Roy was rummaging through an open first aid kit as he jabbered into his commlink. "Got 'em. Thanks, Mike. Any side effects we need to watch out for?" He sighed. "You know and I know he won't go to a hospital. I've been in touch with Pieter, already. The good doc says Alfred's got a clean bill of health…" Red Arrow was silent for a few minutes. Then, "I'll tell them. And I'll stick around and tell him, too." He chuckled. "That'll be… fun." He laughed louder. "Oh, I'll tell him THAT! Probably make the next JLA potluck interesting. Here's a tip, Mr. T: if he offers you some sort of casserole as a 'token of his appreciation', and he tells you he cooked it himself… run. It means he's rethinking his no killing code." He grinned. "Good luck with Checkmate, Holt. They need more people like you. Arrow out."

"Well?" Jason demanded.

"They call him 'Mr. Terrific' for a reason," he said.

"Because he picked it as his code-name?"

Roy ignored the wisecrack. "First of all, Batman's probably going to be fine. According to Mr. T, the neurotoxin should start wearing off in four to six hours. But until it's completely out of his system," Roy pointed to the assortment of medications on the table, "we need to keep that stuff separate. He takes any of those, the side effects could be bad, maybe fatal."

Jason blinked. "Got it. What else did he say?"

"Alfred's better, but he's still not at a hundred per cent. We're going to have to stick around and make sure he doesn't knock himself out waiting on Bruce… which means we'll have to help out both of them. And 'Wing, too."

Jason considered that. Then he nodded. "Okay. Anything else?"

"Yeah," Roy grinned. "Terrific said to warn Bruce that if he doesn't follow orders this time, he'll have to visit Gotham and…" All at once he realized that Damien was listening intently. It occurred to him that quoting Michael Holt's words verbatim might not be such a good idea, after all. "And kick some bat-butt," he concluded.

Jason laughed.

Damien scowled. "If there is any kicking to be done," he nearly spat the words out, "it shall be done by Father."

Anything that either young man might have said in response was cut off abruptly by the sound of the door edging open. Jay's hand flew to his knife, while Roy quickly nocked a fresh arrow to his bow.

A moment later, Robin walked slowly into view. "SWAT's upstairs," he said by way of greeting. "They're helping the doctors corral the last of the patients." He frowned. "I saw Talia outside. What…" He took in the scene before him with some dismay, "happened?"

Dinah, Jay, Damien and Roy all began to speak at once. Dinah held up a hand. "Jay, you were the last one to leave, you fill him in."

Jason thought for a moment. "They tried to kill us, we beat 'em. I'm starved."

Dinah sighed. "On second thought… Roy, you tell him."

Roy opened his mouth. Dinah held up a hand. "Sorry, just a sec. Robin… you said you saw Talia. Is she alright? Why didn't she come back with you?"

Robin locked eyes with Damien. With a gentleness he hadn't known he could use in addressing the boy, he said, "She left. About twenty minutes ago. And it didn't look like she was planning to come back anytime soon."

Damien's mouth dropped open. "She… she left me?"

Tim nodded. "I'm sorry." He put a hand on the young boy's shoulder.

For once, Damien didn't bristle at the familiarity. "Did she have any… parting words for me?"

Tim hesitated a moment too long.

"She didn't. Did she?"

"I'm sorry," Tim said again.

Damien nodded curtly and turned away, nearly colliding with Jason.

"Hey," Jason gripped him by one arm, steadying him. "Hey, kid. I gotcha."

The boy's face crumpled and he flung himself forward, into Jay's mid-section. "Why?" He whispered. "Why would she…?"

Jay hugged him close. "What're you guys looking at?" He demanded. "See how Bruce and Dick are doing, for chrissake!" He held Damien tighter as his companions turned their attention back to the two patients. "I gotcha," he repeated. "I gotcha."

With uncharacteristic gentleness, he guided the small boy toward one of the sofas, and it was there that Damien fell into an exhausted sleep, his head resting against Jason's leg. Jason waited almost a full twenty minutes before he carefully extricated himself and walked back to the others.


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