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One Step Back

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"After all, you've seen what happens when you bring your friends into this crazy little game of ours! Working alone is really only a problem when you need an extra set of hands. Let's see if we can't solve that little conundrum!"

Dick's stomach feels like it's tied itself into a knot. The video stops in the middle of that deranged, chilling laugh, starts to play again, and he stares at it even as it freezes in place at a tap of Bruce's fingers. It takes him a good few moments to be able to take a breath deep enough that his lungs stop feeling just as frozen as the video, and another few past that before he can pull his gaze away from the screen and down towards where Bruce is watching him. Expression hard as stone, waiting for his reaction, or input. Just waiting.

"How long have you had this?" is the first thing to make it out of Dick's mouth.

Bruce's expression tightens a little further, somehow. He'd probably be more comfortable behind the cowl, and Dick takes it as a sign of compromise that Bruce is even this far undressed. "Eight days. You had business in Bludhaven; I pursued this myself."

Anger rises hot and sharp to join the horror, but Dick pushes it aside to focus on the more important things. "What did you find?"

Thanks to the way Bruce's jaw works, and the glance towards the screen, Dick knows the answer even before Bruce grinds out, "Nothing. There are other videos; a small bundle from… before this one. None provide any clue to a location. The Joker was… unhelpful. It's a dead end."

Dick winces at the phrasing, even as his breath catches. "There has to be something. Some clue in the background, or a sound, or—”

"I've watched them each a half a hundred times, Dick. There's nothing. There's no lead. He's—” Bruce looks away, turns the screen off with a hard swipe of his hand. "I thought you'd want to know; Alfred already does, Tim and Barbara I'll tell… soon."

He grits his teeth at how Bruce isn't looking at him, at how unyielding that point of view is. "Did you find a body anywhere? Any traces?"


Dick's run into this particular wall before. He knows, with enough shouting and enough talking, he can usually bring Bruce around, but… maybe not this time. He’s not willing to wage that particular war right now anyway, so instead he takes the side route and demands, "Send me the videos."

That gets Bruce to look at him, eyes narrowed, and Dick can see another line in the sand being drawn in the way that Bruce is nearly entirely still. “You don’t want to see that.”

“Of course I don’t.” He crosses his arms, meeting the look and the obstinacy with more than enough of his own. This, he’s had a lot of practice at. “But that wasn’t a request, Bruce. You’re done with your investigation, fine, but I haven’t had a chance to even look, and you’re not denying me that chance. Send me the videos, all of them, or I’ll get Barbara to hack your security and get me them anyway.”

“You saw this one,” Bruce grinds out. “What are you expecting to find? Jason’s dead.”

It would be so easy to fall into a shouting match. Dick can hear the potential in Bruce’s inflection, in the hard and unyielding press of syllables like that alone could be enough to get him to back down and leave this alone. He could respond in kind, and it would be such a simple thing. Anger is easy. Just another argument to join all the rest; not that they ever get anywhere with them. They’re both too stubborn for that.

“Probably,” Dick makes himself agree, “but I’ve seen a lot of things, and not all of them were what they looked like. I’m not expecting miracles, Bruce, but I can damn well expect closure. There will be something, and even if all that gets me is bones… It’s an answer. That’s all I want, and if I can’t find anything, then… then I’ll take this as the answer.” He holds Bruce’s gaze, lowers his voice, and adds, “Don’t ask me not to try, Bruce. You know I can’t do that.”

Bruce doesn’t even move for a long time, but Dick’s used to that too. The silent, hard front that tries to press you down into doing what he wants; it used to work on him every time when he was still Robin. Still young. Not anymore.

Finally, Bruce gives. Just a tiny bit, just enough to say, “Fine. I’ll send them.”

He exhales then, slowly, before he offers, "Thank you. If you have notes—”

There's a sharp, "They'll be included," that cuts him off as Bruce turns away, back to the computer.

Even if he hadn't spent years figuring out Bruce's particular methods of communication, that's a clear enough dismissal. But he lingers long enough to say, “Bruce, I’m sorry. If there’s anything I can do… Just let me know, alright?”

There’s not an answer, but he’s not expecting one.

The videos make his hands shake no matter how many times he watches them, and they're frustratingly blank of any evidence. There are assumptions he can make, but the equipment is cheap and the evidence doesn't point anywhere important. Except one bit.

Six months. The Joker said six months; at that point, Joker was supposed to be in Arkham. Which means one of two things; either Jason was stored close enough to get to, or Joker wasn't actually in Arkham. Either way, someone in Arkham is dirty enough to facilitate it. He just needs to find out who it is, and what they did. If Joker left Arkham without anyone knowing then his chances are… bad, to put it mildly, but if it's the second option then maybe, just maybe

He estimates the time between the different videos, makes himself draw up a rough timeline of injury, and how long the obvious injuries would take to heal. (The brand makes him sick to his stomach the first time he really looks at it.) The final answer comes out to the same amount of time Jason's been missing; eight and a half months, judging by the injuries left behind. Also a time that Joker was supposed to be in Arkham, but still not a confirmation of which option it is; Arkham or escape.

It's possible that Joker's mention of six months was a lie, but it doesn't seem as likely. To break someone as apparently thoroughly as Joker broke Jason would take time. A lot of time. Especially someone trained like they are; Bruce never put them through the kinds of things it would take to really learn how to resist torture, but he taught them enough to make them strong. Jason wouldn't have broken easily.

If Jason is, by some miracle, still alive, then he needs to figure this out as quickly as possible. Even if he's not, the longer it takes for him to find anything, the less chance that there will be anything to find. Evidence always has an expiration date.

He understands, within the week, why Bruce stopped looking. There's no evidence in the videos, Arkham's records are shoddy at best and missing at worst, and Bruce's transcription of his 'interrogation' of Joker tells him just about nothing. Laughter, and a lot of jokes that all just say one thing at their core. Jason's dead, and he suffered.

Dick almost stops looking. He almost puts it all down and just walks away after that, but he forces himself to continue. He has to know, and he's not going to stop until he finds some explanation for the how, if nothing else. He needs that. They all need that.

He goes through every bit of surveillance he can get his hands on, all the records, every inch of Joker's cell on one memorable night. But still, the first thing he finds (nearly a month in and he's starting to wear ragged at the edges, trying to do all this on top of regular patrols and cases in Bludhaven) he almost dismisses.

It's a doctor.

Arkham employees tend to either leave within the span of two months or stick around forever, depending on their ability to handle terrifying levels of crazy and the corruption that tends to run rampant in the place. This one is one of the two-month types, paperwork filled out and everything (which not all of them manage before running for their lives), but it fits the period of Jason's death. Loosely; a couple weeks before the videos arrived, but it's close enough to catch Dick's eye. The paperwork is neatly done, in the doctor's handwriting and everything, and he nearly sets it aside. But something nags at him, something small. It feels too neat to be the scribbling of a doctor too freaked out to stay at his job any longer.

So he looks the man up, and there aren't any records. No follow up job, cards canceled due to inactivity, the place where he lives now apparently rented to someone else. Apparently, this doctor left Arkham, and vanished. Or never left Arkham.

That's the first bit of evidence. One doctor, vanishing from Arkham at roughly the same time Jason was killed. Maybe it's nothing, but it's enough to keep him looking or more.

The second, is a guard. Frank Boles.

Long-time employee of Arkham, with a history of violence, drinking, and gambling issues. How he's become one of the senior staff at Arkham is a good question, but not one he's planning on looking too deeply into. Going down that road will lead to having to do a full sweep of Arkham's employees, and he doesn't have time for that right now. Later, it will happen. He'll make damn sure of it. He'll do the entire investigation himself if he has to, because whatever explanation he finds, someone in Arkham helped make it happen. He's going to find that person.

It takes him four times reading through all of Boles' files and information before he realizes what it is that feels off. Boles isn't spending anything. His paychecks go in, regular as clockwork, and there aren't any odd deposits to his account. Nothing anyone would notice on a normal look, or even a detailed one, except the fact that apart from a few basic expenses — bills and the occasional coffee — Boles' isn't buying anything. Realistically, almost no one is that frugal. And an alcoholic, gambling man? Close to impossible.

It takes about four days tailing Boles' in his off hours for Dick to confirm that Boles has more cash than he should. A lot more. It's not obvious looking at him, he hasn't bought anything lavish, but his normal purchases, mainly food and alcohol, are all done with cash. It's just enough for Dick to be sure that someone is paying the guard off. Probably regularly and, as he confirms when he looks back through the records, for a long time.

He almost confronts Boles then and there. It would be one way to get answers, if he can be convincing enough, and he's spent most of his time learning how to be 'convincing' enough to get people to tell him what he wants. But caution stops him. If Boles is involved — still involved, that is — maybe he'll warn Joker before Dick can figure out exactly where to look, and that could ruin his chances. If there is still evidence (or Jason is still alive), he can't risk it being destroyed. He won't.

What he can do is search every corner of Arkham he can reach, and set up enough cameras to give him a look at what happens inside. (Plus adding in his own hack to the security feeds, so he has copies of anything that might get deleted.) Joker, Harley and this guard Boles are the main priorities, but general views of the corridors and main rooms are good too.

It takes him a week to make a sweep of Arkham, and to set up everything he needs (without getting noticed by anyone). Then he settles in to watch, and wait. The basic sweep doesn't turn anything up, but he isn't expecting it to. Bruce would have at least done that much before deciding to stop looking.

It drives him nearly mad, to be stuck behind the screen, but there's too much opportunity for him to get caught if he keeps sneaking into Arkham every night. It could take as little as one time for Joker to know that he's investigating. This is harder for him, being stuck just watching instead of being able to deal with things hands on, but it's safer even though it takes longer. Just shy of three weeks, before he finds a definable pattern in the feeds. Mostly Harley, sometimes Joker, being escorted out of their cells by Boles and taken down to 'therapy.' He doesn't have cameras everywhere, and there are blind spots he can't do much about so it's not absolute evidence, but they disappear somewhere past stepping out of the elevator on the lowest floor.

That's it. It has to be.

That night he goes back to Arkham, slipping in during the hours just before dawn when the lights are dimmed and most of the inmates are at least secured in their cells, if not actually asleep. He considers calling Bruce, getting him to help, but… Dick can't bring himself to get Bruce's hopes up, if this is nothing. Not after how much he's already suffered. He has to be sure, and that means doing this by himself.

When he goes past their cells, just to check, both Harley and Joker are still in them. Which makes things simpler, at least. He won't have to worry about running into them while he's figuring out where the vanishing point is. Somewhere between the elevator, and the next point of security he has, which is a security camera at the other end of the hall that turns back and forth. Easy to get past with a bit of timing, so the range could be wider, but he'll start with just the length of the hallway. If that doesn't pan out, then he can work on figuring out the next place it could be. (Statistically improbable, if not quite impossible, that Boles, Joker, and Harley have all been dodging this camera every single time to go somewhere legitimate.)

There are two doors in the length of the hallway, on the right side. Both lead to what look like offices; therapy maybe, given the restraints on the chairs set in front of the desks. Maybe that legitimizes where Harley and Joker are being taken, maybe they really do have appointments, but… It doesn't feel right. There's nothing in the offices anyway, no hidden levers or false walls or flooring, so he moves back out into the hallway. Easy to disregard the length of the wall that has the offices on the other side, but he takes time searching the rest of it. Still nothing. No signs of any kind of hidden room.

Frustration starts to build in his stomach, the same kind of hope gone sour that he wanted to protect Bruce from. If none of this is real… If he really is just chasing dead ends…

His gaze falls on the elevator, and he pauses. He's checked everywhere else, right? The elevator itself has a camera in it, but once they've left it, if they just turned back around then maybe there's something in the shaft itself. Maybe there's a door, or a passageway, or hell, a ladder. What harm is there in at least checking?

He walks back; the number indicator at the top says that the elevator's gone back to upper floors, which is a little strange and just enough to make that sour hope lighten a little. He pushes his fingers into the seam, braces to pull the doors open, and they part as easily as a normal door would, sliding open without him needing to use any of the force he expected to. He swallows, stepping half inside the door to look around, as he flicks on the small flashlight he brought with him. The walls all look solid, nothing telling at a first glance, but maybe with a closer one…

He steps forward, into the shaft itself, and his footstep has an odd metallic ring to it. It freezes him in place.

He lifts his foot, drops it down a little harder.


False flooring. Empty space beneath. Who would get into an elevator shaft, after all?

He kneels down, fingers sliding around the edges until he finds a slight indentation, just enough to lift the sheet of metal and press it up against the wall where the elevator won't hit it when coming down. That reveals a dark opening, and when he sweeps his light down into it, stairs. There's a flight of rough stairs.

Dick does his very best not to hyperventilate right there at the top of them as adrenaline starts to course down into his veins. Two months searching but he has something. He has something. Real, undeniable proof of how this happened, and all he has left to do is find out what's at the end of the tunnel. Joker and Harley have still been making fairly regular trips down here, so it has to either be a way out, or… Or there has to be something down here they're checking in on.

He forces himself to stay careful as he heads down the stairs, watching for any sort of traps that might have been left behind. Can't be too careful with someone like Joker.

It leads down into a cave, onto a rough stone and dirt floor, and directly ahead there's a brick wall, a door. He stares at it for a moment before moving forward, pushing it open carefully, slowly. It goes without a sound, and light spills out so he clicks off his flashlight, carefully putting a shoulder to the door and edging it a little further open, a little more…

Wooden floors, half-built walls, an overhead lamp shining brightly down and casting a circle of light in the middle of the small room. Inside the circle a chair, and a man in an orange jumpsuit tied to it. Ropes around his chest and calves, head bowed and chest rising in sharp but mostly even breaths. It only takes a second past that for him to see the nearby bucket, and the cords leading into it and trailing across the room, which is what he somehow manages to notice before the stains of blood on the floor, and on the jumpsuit.

Black hair is all it takes to make him start to move forward, and the man's head jerks up at the sound of his footsteps, fast enough to make his steps falter. There's what looks like a black sleeping mask pressed down over his eyes, but the shape of the face — even leaner, even stripped of everything but the hard angle of bone beneath the skin — is familiar enough for him to look closer, and the brand sitting just below the mask, a harsh J printed into pale skin, makes him sure. Jason.

He steps forward again, more rushed, and Jason flinches back, breathing picking up, body pressing back against the wood of the chair. He almost falters again but makes himself press through, coming to look at the ropes tying Jason to the chair. His calves are bound together, and so are his arms, but the only actual restraint is the rope tying his chest to the back of the chair. Easy enough to break, for someone at full strength, but Jason… He's not. Closer, Dick can see the dried blood along his jaw, the split at the corner of his mouth, the holes in the jumpsuit with bandaged or still-raw wounds beneath them. Burns, blades, and the bruises visible at the part of the uniform, near his throat, say blunt force too.

"Don't," Jason begs, the raw, weak voice startling him. "Please don't."

He leans down, reaching up and tugging the sleep mask off, baring the blue-green eyes that shutter open, slowly. "Hey," he whispers, cupping the unmarked side of Jason's face to turn that head towards him. "Hey, Jason, it's me, alright? It's okay. I'm going to get you out of here."

Jason's pupils are dilated, but there's surprising strength when he yanks his head away, shaking it, pulling against the rope. "No. No, not true. You're not real, you're not real."

Dick takes hold of Jason's head again, making him look back, holding those hazed eyes with the gaze of his mask. "Jason, it's me. Nightwing. You know me, remember? I found you, buddy. I found you."

Jason's expression twists, teeth gritting together, eyes darkening and it's all just miserable pain. "Don't lie to me," Jason says, voice cracking, shoulders trembling. "God, don't— Don't make me think… Can't my own head give me a goddamn break?!" In a flash, Jason's misery morphs to anger, teeth snapping together, body jerking against the rope hard enough that Dick finds himself flinching back. "No one's coming! No one cares! He left me! He has his— his new Robin and he doesn't— he doesn't care."

Jason shudders, slumping into the ropes, head falling away from his hand. "Jason," Dick murmurs, and there's a shake of the head, another shudder.

"He's not coming. Please don't— I can't— Don't make me believe it." Jason's eyes squeeze shut. "I can't believe it again. I can't."

Dick can't listen to any more, not with how his chest feels tight, how it hurts. He takes a knife from his belt, earns a hard jerk and a low, guttural sound of fear from Jason before he starts to saw through the ropes. They're thin, they snap easily enough.

"What…?" Jason breathes, staring down at him as the ropes fall away, before Dick sets to work separating the ones holding his arms behind him.

"Do you know where you are?" he asks, gently gripping Jason's lower arm to hold him steady. He doesn't know what kind of damage is underneath the jumpsuit, and he doesn't want to cause any unnecessary pain. But if Jason jerks away, he needs the knife to not do any damage.

Jason's head shakes, and Dick's about to answer when Jason says, "Arkham. I— Below Arkham. It's just— just a couple hundred feet." A hard breath, and Jason's voice starts to crack as he says, "Just up the— Fuck, just up the stairs. Can't make it. He'll— They'll—

"Easy," Dick tries to comfort, sliding his hand up Jason's arm as he tugs the last of the rope off, and Jason's shoulders are finally able to roll forward. The pain at least seems to distract Jason from the hysterical edge his voice was taking on, because he doesn't keep speaking, just curls in on himself and clutches at his left shoulder, a harsh, raw sound escaping his throat. "I'm going to get your legs now," Dick murmurs, keeping his hand on Jason's arm as he slowly kneels down, making sure Jason can see him do it. "Stay still for me, alright, Jason? It'll just be a couple seconds."

Jason's eyes are wide, fear and disbelief equally prevalent, but beyond staring at him — and the somewhat worrying trembling — there's no movement. Good enough for Dick to start to work at the thicker ropes tying Jason's calves together, keeping him immobile. His feet are bare, but there don't seem to be any visible injuries. None he gets at a quick glance anyway, not like the split corner of Jason's mouth or the way his wrists have rubbed raw against the rope (and the scars beneath the fresh wounds that say that this isn't the first time Jason's scraped his skin raw under ropes). That's at least one good thing in this whole nightmare.

It takes him a little longer to get through those ropes, but eventually they fall away as well. Jason's legs fall slightly apart, feet shifting against the wooden floor. Dick watches him shudder as one leg stretches out, teeth biting down into the lip to muffle what sounds like a thin whimper. Cramps, probably. God knows how long he's been tied like that.

Dick has to take a deep breath before he can shift forward and put a careful hand on Jason's arm, staying on one knee as he looks up. "Jason, hey, it's gonna be alright. We're going to get you out of here, okay? Come on, let me help you get up."

Jason's breathing picks up, body shying away from Dick's hand and his eyes squeezing shut. "No. No, I'm not—” He rocks slightly, clings harder to his own shoulder. "Just seeing things. I'll— I'll never make it. He'll catch me. Fuck, he'll catch me. Just another trap."

It's not going to help anyone if he gets upset. Jason is traumatized, he's either partially in shock or he's drugged (Dick's leaning towards the latter or maybe even both), and he's been in captivity for almost eleven months now. He needs to be handled right. Carefully. He'll need Jason quiet and cooperative to get out of Arkham without being caught, and it'll be much easier if that comes without him having to knock Jason out first. He could carry Jason out, but dead weight is harder to maneuver, generally, and there are too many opportunities for things to go wrong on the way out of Arkham.

"Jason," he tries again, keeping his voice soft and shifting to kneel a little bit closer. "I need you to look at me, alright? Open your eyes and look at me." Slowly, Jason does look down at him, and just as slowly Dick lifts a hand and sets it on his knee. "Jason, I'm real. Focus on the touch; listen to my voice. I took the blindfold off. I cut the ropes. No hallucination could do that, Jason. I'm real."

Jason stares down at his hand, then reaches for him in a sudden burst of motion that nearly makes him flinch away. But then fingers are curling around his glove, squeezing hard. Jason exhales in a hard burst. "Not a hallucination," comes the whisper. The fingers squeeze even harder, harder than Dick thought would be possible. "Tell me a secret," Jason demands, voice sharper now, more desperate. "Tell me something they wouldn't know."

Dick swallows, and then lifts his other hand and cups Jason's face. "Remember my nickname for you, Jason? You always glared at me for using it, always thought I was belittling you, Little Wing." Jason's gaze snaps up, meeting his gaze. He gives a small smile. "I used it once on patrol, and you didn't speak to me for the rest of the night. I never did it again in front of anyone but family."

Jason's expression falls from shock into pain, head bowing as his lips quiver, breath catching and a small shiver making its way down his spine. "Nightwing, I— Help me. God, help me."

He moves closer, fighting the urge to gather Jason in against him because Dick knows that will hurt. Instead he lightly squeezes Jason's hand, and promises, "I will. I will. Come on, Jason, let's get you out of here. Let me help you up."

He slides his free hand around Jason's waist, moving around him (Jason won't let go of his hand for several long moments) until he can get underneath Jason's arm and start to lift him. The way Jason cries out, weight sagging heavily against him, almost makes him stumble. He forces himself to stand under the weight, and not to think too closely about the fact that it's a lot less weight than it should be. Jason was finally growing into himself when he was taken; the fact that he's lighter now is… it's scary, honestly. Dick has a feeling that a lot of what he's about to learn will be frightening.

Jason's head is pressed against his shoulder, legs half-bent and supporting barely any of the weight they need to, and Dick exhales a slow breath and shifts to get Jason's arm a little more securely around his shoulders, and tightens his grip around the too-thin waist to get a better angle. Jason is trembling, clinging to him with both hands, breathing in harsh bursts against the side of his neck. It's going to be slow going, if he can even get Jason moving at all.

"I know it's hard, but I need you to try and walk with me," Dick says, loud enough that he's sure Jason will hear it. "Can you try, Jason?"

The sound that Jason makes into his neck, desperate and pained, is almost enough of an answer on its own, but then Jason huffs out a hard breath and slowly shifts, legs gathering underneath him. They're shaking, but they hold.

"Alright," he murmurs. "We're going to take this slow, alright? One step at a time, no rush. Try one for me?"

It takes a pretty big amount of effort, but Dick manages to get him out of the room and — even though he drags more than Jason walks — up the stairs. He pauses at the top of them, letting Jason have a few moments to catch his breath while he plans how to get them out of Arkham proper. He did it by dodging cameras and spending half the time up on pipes, but with Jason here that's just not an option. It would be easiest if he could just head straight out, but that would take help he doesn't have. So he'll need to take it slow, careful, and take as much time as is necessary. Whatever that means. He still has hours before the Arkham crew is going to be up and running (minus the night guards).

So first step, he's going to need Jason to be quiet. He can't get him out if he has to worry about sound.

"Jason, we're going to head up into Arkham now." Jason's head lifts a tiny bit, fingers scraping over Dick's armor. He carefully lets go of the hand he has lightly holding Jason's arm so he can reach down into his belt, withdrawing one of the small, rubber bit-gags he keeps around in case guards or minions are particularly noisy. "I need you to be quiet so we can get out without being seen. Can you bite down on this for me? It should help."

Maybe it's prodding into something he doesn't know about, but Jason goes stiff underneath his grip for a long moment, and the breath that finally comes is shallow, clearly scared if not outright terrified. Dick has a moment where all he can think about is that video with the duct tape pressed over Jason's mouth, and what else might have happened off camera, before he forces himself away from that potential rabbit hole. There isn't time right now. Later, he can wonder about exactly what was done to Jason. Not now.

"I'm not going to tie it," he reassures, quickly. "It's just something to bite down on if you need to. Please, Little Wing?"

Finally, there's a small nod. A rough, "I— Okay. Okay."

He tries not to look at Jason's expression when he carefully fits the small gag between those teeth, his stomach curling a bit at just the act. Jason's jaw is tight, but he's back a step from the nearly hyperventilating pattern of breathing he had before, which is good enough for now.

He takes a deep breath himself, and takes Jason's wrist in hand again. "Let's get you out of here."