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With a Whimper

Chapter Text

He had two minutes left to live.

He could see the display flashing on wrist, the live countdown timed to his demise. It was the only light in the supply closet and cast long, ominous shadows in the small space. It made the blood on his clothes and skin appear black.

The part of Damian’s brain that was still functioning insisted that black blood would be better. He had seen the second Robin uniform, its tears painstakingly mended, the cloth not wholly scrubbed of unmistakable russet stains no matter how much household witchery Pennyworth used.

The part of his brain that was panicking, crying, dying, raging argued that it didn’t matter. In one minute and twenty-six seconds, he would be dead, and they would be lucky if there would be enough left of him to patch together a uniform at all.

It would hurt. Damian knew pain, was no stranger to it, but Todd said it would hurt, and the way he had said it… It was going to hurt. Damian wondered if it would bring shame upon him if he threw up in the tiny closet. He wanted to, both from fear and the pain that was already making him quake.

The first blast, the accidental one that had trapped him in the rec center basement, had collapsed shelving units on him like a landslide of metal and sporting equipment. Damian had come to, ears ringing and head bleeding, and found himself pinned. How proud of himself he had been, to wriggle out despite his fractured leg and broken ribs. How utterly sure he had been of his choices, even after finding the exit blocked by fallen debris, when he had lied to Batman about being outside. It was noble and eminently practical, he had thought, to let Batman focus on defusing the bombs in the rest of Gotham. He could hold for extraction until later, or perhaps even find a way out on his own in the interim.

He had made himself comfortable as he could amidst the destruction, only to listen with mounting horror as the report came in. The bomb maker had planted not one bomb per location but several, and Batman was having trouble disarming the trigger mechanism.

Damian had reached instinctively for his earpiece, then frozen, gloved hand hovering a breath away from his ear. He couldn’t call Batman. He knew that as instinctively as he knew his own name. To call now would benefit no one, least of all him. Batman was already doing the one thing that might save him. Nor could he call Richard, who was uptown at one of the other targets, silently monitoring family chatter through his own earpiece while on duty as Officer Grayson.

He had stared at the wall then, an ugly, grey cinderblock wall marred by black scuff marks, and tried to figure out what to do. No Batman. No Richard. Calling in civilian aid would only endanger them now. The door was blocked. His leg throbbed every time his heart beat.

Damian could think of only one other person to call.

He crawled to the supply closet, inch by painstaking inch, chewing on his bottom lip until it bled as he hauled his broken leg and aching ribs over twisted metal and chunks of ceiling insulation. It was worth the pain to know that he had done what little he could to give himself a chance for survival, and that at least the cinderblock wall wouldn’t be his last sight on Earth.

Once inside, by the light of the green display on his wrist, he had called Jason Todd. The man had sounded as irritated with Damian as always, and the normalcy had been a balm even as Damian’s dread mounted. He didn’t want to have to say it, didn’t want to have to admit what was happening. Speaking things aloud made them real, like peeking under the bed for a monster. Far better to hide under the covers and not look.

But the longer he waited, the more the sickly pressure grew in his chest, building to fill him from his gut to the top of his throat. And the longer he waited, the more the numbers on his display dropped.

Did it hurt?

Todd was the only one who had died for real, and in an explosion like the one awaiting Damian. He could provide answers.

Damian wished he hadn’t called. He wished he’d never asked, because finally he was being treated like an adult and told the truth, and he wished Todd had lied instead. All Damian could see now, lit against the black interior of the supply closet, was the memorial case in the Cave. Each mended tear. Each faded bloodstain. It had hurt to die like that.

He squeezed his eyes shut and bit back a sob. He didn’t want to die.

The connection hissed, fraught with static and silence. Damian’s eyes blew open wide. Right then, the only thing more frightening than dying was dying alone.

“Don’t hang up. Please.” Please don’t leave me. Please, please, I’m scared. I’m scared of the dark and of what’s coming and I can’t do it alone, please don’t leave me.

“I told you, brat, I’m coming. I’m not going anywhere.” When Todd spoke, Damian could hear the howl of his motorcycle over the line. Let him come. He was too far away to be of use. He could be the one to dig Damian out so Father wouldn’t have to.

Damian could do this. He would bear himself with dignity. It was the only control he had left, how he would spend his final moments. He tried to even out his breathing, to keep the tears from his voice if not from his eyes. When Todd offered to call Richard, Damian rebuffed him. This was another thing he could do, protect his family. He would not let Richard listen to him die. And he would not spend his final moments with Richard’s anger and heartbreak in his ears.

Oh Mother, I wish you had never sent me here.

All he had left was Todd. Damian ran his forearms along his face, trying to smear away the tears and the blood as he attempted to think. Forty-six seconds left, to say everything he wished to say.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was difficult. I’m sorry I didn’t know how to be a good son. I’m sorry I was such an awful brother. I’m sorry I made you so angry. Please don’t be sad for too long. Please don’t forget about me. I love you and I’m sorry I never said it, please don’t put me in a glass box, please don’t give me to Grandfather, please I don’t want to die, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please—

But then Todd said he was on his way, and Damian felt the shock like ice shot through his spine.

“No—Todd! You can’t come in here!” He struggled against the detritus in the cupboard, as if by standing he could will Jason Todd away from the building. “If you die again, it will destroy Father.”

According to Drake, Father had barely survived Todd’s first death. He would not survive the second.

I’ve accepted it, just let me be! he wanted to scream, but the words caught in his throat. Damian shuddered and buried his face in his arms, then lifted his head with a jolt of fear, panicked that he had missed even one of the flashing numbers on his wrist. There were so few remaining.

It wasn’t fair. There was so much left he had wanted to do.

He could hear his own gasping breaths, muffled by the enclosed space. His heart pounded in his chest, like a line from a storybook, like a fist banging on a door. With each number that disappeared, dropping from 00:30 to 00:20, 00:15, 00:14, 00:13, his skin tightened and his chest burned.

What would it feel like? Like being electrocuted? Like being run over by a building? Like being set on fire? Would he feel his own bones break? Would he feel his skin crackle and burn? Would it be a moment of the worst pain imaginable and then nothing, or would he linger? What if he lay there, unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to do anything but feel?

All thoughts of bravery were gone. Damian wept openly and held his battered side. He wept in fear and anticipation, his eyes fixed on the clock now down to single digits. He wept for his family, for the trauma he knew they would have to endure. They had all suffered too much death, and he didn’t want to be a photo on the wall.

He didn’t want to be the little dead boy that haunted Richard’s life.

Five seconds left and Todd was shouting his name.

Four seconds left and the air had already left Damian’s lungs, shot out in heaving sobs and invectives.

Three seconds left and Todd was standing in the door, awash in fluorescent light that made Damian blink.

Two seconds left and it was already too late.

The door shut. The watch beeped. And Jason’s arms were around him.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, the night could be defined by three calls. The first was Batman’s, made to Commissioner Gordon from the car as he raced to halt cataclysm. Bombs all over Gotham. Mobilize every force. Evacuate everyone immediately.

The second was also Bruce’s and was less of a call than a status update. It was made to Oracle while in a tiny, disastrous studio apartment, surrounded by half-finished equipment and plans scrawled with mania enough to make a conspiracy theorist pale. Black Bat stood to the side, her foot planted atop the back of the sprawled, unconscious bomb maker, while Bruce crouched next to the blinking mess of wires on the ottoman in the center of the room. More bombs than they had thought, was how that call had gone. More bombs and a mechanism that was stymying even Batman for the moment.

He had considered calling in Red Robin. The boy had a way with technology that Bruce envied, unfurling complicated layers of mechanics like flower petals at a touch. But the ten-minute countdown that had begun when Bruce triggered the wrong sequence wasn’t enough to recall Tim from his position in the business district. So instead Bruce had sent out the alert through Oracle before settling down with an inward sigh to pick apart the device.

The third call had come directly into Bruce’s earpiece even as he accepted Black Bat’s help getting to his feet. The words had felt like a taser directly to his brain, locking him in place, one hand still wrapped around Cassandra’s wrist.

”He’s dead,” the voice had sobbed, nearly unintelligible in its hysteria. ”He’s dead he’s dead I killed him someone help!

Bruce was already running, confusion giving way to horror as he recognized Damian’s voice. He had never heard his son like this before. Cassandra was sprinting beside him, the call echoing in her own earpiece and across the secure channel that connected them all.

He had just opened his mouth to order Damian to calm himself and give them more information when his son, gagging on his own tears and panic, gasped, “Jason’s dead he’s dead someone please help—“

It was Cassandra’s iron grip, again, that kept Bruce from falling. She caught him as the earth buckled beneath his feet, dragging him forward even as his knees threatened to give way. It never occurred to him to question. This was Damian, who had refused to so much as whimper through the worst pain, now sobbing like the child he was. This was Damian, who didn’t overreact to fear, who clung to rules like the very word of God, using civilian names over the comm. This was Jason, who had died before, who was reckless, who hadn’t spoken on the open line all night.

Barbara, bless her, had been the one to pull from Damian useful words like rec center and bomb while Bruce choked down the sick in his throat and drove like the world was ending.

Like he was kneeling on a cold concrete floor, the sky overhead red with fire, while his son died in his arms.

It was nothing like Ethiopia and too close all at once. The rec center smelled of old sneakers and body odor, not gasoline and metal, but the cloying dust of shattered debris was the same. His feet pounded along hallways of linoleum and poured concrete, not ruptured dirt and sand, but the tinkling of broken glass and the hurdles of fallen rafters were the same. The weeping in his earpiece, the cries of terror and heartbreak, those were new. One son alive. The utter silence from Jason, though. That was too terribly familiar.

Panic tempted Bruce to charge in like a battering ram, but the structure was unsound, so instead he slipped into the gap of the ajar basement door like a shadow. Brave in everything but this, he hesitated outside the supply closet. His heart was a supernova, exploding white-hot but already collapsing inward.

He expected blood. Trickling from Jason’s mouth or pouring from an open wound, splattered across the walls like a monstrous art project or pooling in a slick spread on the floor, the world would be stained red.

Instead, there was only a body. Jason filled the tiny space. He had thrown himself wholly around Damian, his leather-clad arms interlocked over Damian’s head. The broad shoulders that still caught Bruce off-guard were curled in protectively, every inch of him angled to take what he could of the anticipated blast and spare the child beneath. His helmeted head lay slumped and still.

From underneath, Damian gave another gagging sob. Bruce caught sight of a trembling flash of red and yellow and had to close his eyes as the world swayed. Cassandra slipped past him, stalwart to the last, and reached to pull his dead son from the living.

As soon as Damian was free, he lunged for Bruce and Bruce caught him.

Prioritize. He couldn’t let himself place the dead above the living. One was past his help. The other he would not fail.

“I’ve got you,” Bruce croaked as he wrapped his arms around Damian and lifted him into his lap. “Shh, Damian, shh, you’re safe, I’ve got you. I’m here.”

He had never heard Damian cry like this before. He hoped to never hear it again. The boy’s entire body shook convulsively as he clung to Bruce, fingers gripping white to his armor.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I killed him, it’s my fault, he’s dead and it’s my fault—“ Damian was babbling, some words coherent, others little more than garbled sobs.

Bruce held him close, shifting the boy in his arms to support the leg that now hung at a crooked, obscene angle. He pressed his nose into Damian’s dust-blanched hair and wiped the blood and tears from his face. The details of the how and the why would come later, pulled from audio footage and gentle questioning, but the what was easy enough to piece together from the fragments Bruce already knew.

A bomb detonating out of sync. A broken leg. A call for help. And a selfless last-second act.

Over Damian’s head, he watched, heart empty and constricting, as Cassandra unhooked the latch and pulled Jason’s helmet from his head. The shock of white hair, his horrible trophy from the Pit, lay plastered to his pale, sweaty forehead. Slivers of blue eyes glazed and lifeless rested unfocused beneath lax eyelids. He didn’t look like he was asleep. He didn’t look like he had gone peacefully. He looked empty.

O Absalom, my son, my son.

Cassandra pulled off a gauntlet and pressed slender fingers behind Jason’s jaw to make official what Bruce already knew. He closed his eyes.

“Shock,” she pronounced.

No, love, that’s the wrong word. Bruce opened his eyes again to correct her, then froze as his gaze snagged on the symbol on Jason’s chest, blood-red and rising with breath.

The more officious “post-traumatic catatonia” would be diagnosed later, the stress of impending death paired with the shock of not dying causing Jason’s consciousness to drain out with the adrenaline in his system. For now, all Bruce knew was that he wouldn’t have to bury a son today.

“They’re alive,” he rasped into the comm, then disconnected himself from the network.

With help from Cassandra, he shifted Damian to rest between Bruce’s side and the wall of the closet before pulling Jason into his arms. He couldn’t speak as he ran his hands across Jason’s face, wiping tear stains from unbroken skin, and felt the pulse point for himself.

Blood pumped steadily beneath his fingertips, thu-thumping its way through the circulatory system, pushed by a living, beating heart. Bruce pressed his lips to Jason’s temple, then to his hair, his muscles tingling with the ghosts of past actions.

“Jason.” The name fractured in the middle, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Jason. You’re safe now. You’re alright.”

He rubbed his thumb along the Jason’s brow, tracing the ridge of his eye socket, the bridge of his nose, the line of his cheekbone. “It’s alright. It’s safe to come back.”

Gotham, for once, remained forgotten. Bruce sat wedged in the shadows of the supply closet, a son tucked in each arm, content to wait. Cassandra slipped away and returned, having emptied her words into the comm and filled her arms with medical supplies from the EMTs. She stabilized Damian’s leg and braced his ribs, wiped the blood from his face and stitched the gash in his forehead while Damian wept into Bruce’s shoulders, tears of horror at last fading into tears of relief. He hadn’t believed Jason wasn’t dead until Bruce had let him feel the pulse for himself and guided his small hand over the warm, soft skin of Jason’s face.

“You’re both alive,” Bruce had promised. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

He couldn’t promise they would both be fine. There were the physical injuries to account for, of course, but worse would be the weeks of residual trauma for all of them. There would be nightmares to deal with, unexpected outbursts and the lingering impact of guilt and fear, as well as a host of other consequences Bruce couldn’t even begin to guess.

But they were alive. They were breathing. Dick would be able to hold Damian and Alfred would bring down hot tea for everyone. Bruce would sit with them through every nightmare and kiss every scrape. They might not be fine, but their damage would not be insurmountable. Not together. Not as a family.

So when at last Jason’s eyelashes fluttered as his eyes began to rove hazily, Bruce could smile, knowing his face would be the first thing his son would see.

“Hello,” he murmured. “Welcome back."