No one realized anything was wrong until the first groan crackled through the comms.
Though he occasionally narrated his outings, entertaining (or annoying) his family with commentary and quips about the criminals he was taking down, Jason was mostly a silent presence on the comms. He’d only let Barbara loop him into the family’s shared line because of some threat Barbara had leveled at him.
Bruce never knew the details. All that mattered was that Jason was—reluctantly, begrudgingly—back in their ears.
Batman was patrolling with Robin on the lower east side, keeping an eye on a building with reported suspicious activity. Black Bat and Batgirl were to the north, while Red Robin managed the computers back in the Cave. Bruce had his eye on Damian, as always, and an ear out for Cass and Stephanie, but he didn’t expect any trouble.
Jason had the night off from his regular patrol, and Nightwing and Oracle were in Bludhaven. Barbara had been over the city border more nights than not lately. Bruce suspected something was rekindling, but both Dick and Barbara denied it was anything more than a rebuilding friendship.
Bruce, staking out the suspicious building on a rooftop with a silent Damian at his side, had been thinking about his eldest when then first sound broke through in a rush of static.
“Fuck,” groaned a familiar voice. It was rougher than it had been when they had first met, turned gravely by years of torment and cigarettes.
“Language,” Batman said quietly. He’d heard Damian spit the same curse last week when Tim had beaten him in a video game, and Bruce thought he knew where Damian had picked up the habit.
“Fuck.” This time, the word was a little more breathy, verging on breaking.
“Red Hood, report,” Batman instructed.
There was a shaky inhalation on the other end of the line. A weak, muffled thump, like someone hitting a pillow. “No, no, no, no.”
“This isn’t funny, Red Hood,” Stephanie said, voice tense through the line.
“Red Hood,” Batman said again.
Jason’s breathing was audible picking up speed, rushing in a panicked stutter. “Not again. Not fucking…”
“Red Hood,” Batman said, finally turning away from the building and staring out over the empty rooftop. “Red Hood, what’s your status? What’s your location?”
“Fuck,” Jason moaned again. The word broke in the middle.
“Why isn’t he answering? Someone get the comms fixed!” Bruce snarled.
“We can hear him. The issue has to be on his end,” Tim pointed out. Bruce could hear clacking keys in the background. “It might be mechanical. I can’t fix that from here.”
“Then try everything you can,” Bruce instructed. “We have to figure out where he is.” He looked back. Damian was still staring at the building, but his face was pale. “Move us to a secure channel,” he added. “Just you, me, and Red Hood. Keep Robin and the Bats on their own line. Anything else happens, tell Robin. Keep my line clear for Red Hood.”
“Got it,” Tim said.
“Where is he?” Bruce asked.
“The transmitter signal is weak. I can’t triangulate it.”
In the background, the frantic breathing was morphing into full hyperventilation. Jason was muttering almost inaudibly, a string of nonsense and expletives.
There was an explosion of sound. Fabric ripped. Hands slammed against something that didn’t give. And Jason started screaming.
Bruce felt cold and hot all at once. His body urged him to lurch into motion, to save his son, but his mind clamped down on the instinct with an iron grip. What he needed was to get more information. He needed to absorb every second so he could fix this.
Once the panicked, incomprehensible scream stopped, Jason shouted, “Someone! Help! Get me out, get me out, get me out!” There was more pounding. “Please. God. Not again.” The outburst left as quickly as it had begun.
“Red Robin,” Bruce said firmly, clamping down on the nausea and terror rolling in his chest. “Why can’t you triangulate it?”
“Unless it’s broken, which I doubt, because I never got an alert, it must be muffled. Blocked somehow. The comms work on a different system. The locator needs to be accessible by satellite. There are a few things that could block it. There are certain warehouses in the city with enough concrete and steel that it dampens the locator. Or if he were…” There was a pause. “Enough dirt would also be enough to muffle it.”
There was a steady thudding coming from the comm. Bruce had trained for years. He knew that there was no Sherlock Holmes quick solution to questions. There was no way for Bruce to correctly identify a sound so muffled without context.
But it sounded to his ears like bloody fists pounding against unforgiving wood.
Now that he’d stopped screaming, the quiet, broken sobs had started again.
“Get the comms working. Now,” Bruce said.
“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Tim said, voice frantic.
“Red Robin,” Bruce said heavily. “You know how to do this. You help build these communicators. You can do this.”
“I can do this,” Tim repeated. “I need to… I need to mute the line while I’m doing this. I can’t…”
“Mute it,” Bruce said. “Do the work, Robin.”
Tim left the call. Bruce stood on the rooftop, eyes unseeing over the dark city, while Jason panted and groaned and cried in his ear.
The next two minutes were the same one hundred and twenty seconds of the previous two, and the two before that, but they seemed to stretch an eternity. Without anyone to bark orders to, Bruce started to let himself consider the situation.
Was Jason truly…?
Could he once again be trying to fight his way from a coffin under the earth?
And was this what he had sounded like the first time, when no one had been listening, and no one ever came to answer his pleas for help?
Bruce stood up straighter, instantly alert. “Ja—Red Hood?” Someone must have put Jason wherever it was he’d ended up. They could have found a way to listen.
“Dick. Fucking Tim. Anyone,” Jason continued, not reacting to Bruce’s response. “Please. I can’t…”
“Batman.” It was Tim this time. “I think I’ve got it.”
He went silent. Bruce cleared his throat, prepared to test the connection again, when there was another burst of wild energy along the comms.
“No!” Jason shouted. “I can’t fucking do this again. I can’t! I can’t!” Each declaration was paired with that same sick sound of flesh slamming against something solid.
“Red Hood,” Bruce tried.
“I can’t! Help!” Jason screamed.
“Red Hood! Jason!” Bruce shouted over him, giving up. No secret identity was worth this. “Jason, can you hear me? Jason!”
There was a pause, and Bruce waited with his heart in his throat. “Bruce,” Jason said finally. “Bruce, where are you?”
“I’m on the comms,” Bruce said. “There was a glitch. I couldn’t get through earlier.”
“Bruce,” Jason said again. “Bruce, I’m… I’m…”
“Jason,” Bruce said firmly. “Tell me where you are. Tell me what happened.”
“Bruce, I’m in a coffin. Bruce, I’m in a coffin again. I can’t do this.” His breath started to pick up again, the high hyperventilation Bruce had only heard from the utterly terrified. “I’m stuck.”
“I need you to breath for me. Slowly,” Bruce said.
“Bruce,” Jason repeated, but his breathing only grew faster.
“Jason!” Bruce barked, hoping to grab his attention. He needed to get Jason to calm down. Not only did he need to learn what had happened so he could work the case, the more Jason shouted and hyperventilated, the less oxygen he would have to survive on until Bruce could find him.
“I can’t, I can’t,” Jason said. “Bruce.”
“Jason,” Bruce said again. “You need to breathe with me. In and out. In. And out. Follow my voice. Listen to me. In. Out. In. Out.”
At first, Jason didn’t seem to be listening, but he finally stabilized his breathing. There was a harsh edge to it, tears desperate to burst free again, but Jason was following Bruce’s instructions.
“Good, good,” Bruce said.
“Father,” Damian said, appearing beside him. Bruce looked to him. “Drake’s on both lines. He didn’t want to interrupt your conversation, but he says the last security cam with footage of Red Hood was only two hours ago. He can’t be very far away. Drake’s going to sweep the cams at the city’s cemeteries to see anyone who went in during that time.”
“Good,” Bruce said, speaking to both Jason and Damian. He nodded to Damian and gave him a motion to continue his conversation with Tim before turning his attention back to Jason. “Keep breathing slowly. Lower your heartrate. You know how.”
“Bruce, I need to get out,” Jason said.
“We’ll get you out,” Bruce corrected. “You need to breathe and tell me what happened.”
“I can’t remember.”
“You can. Where were you last?”
“I was in my apartment,” Jason said after a long pause. “I got a call from Roy about someone smuggling drugs into the city. They were, uh, on a boat. The shipment was supposed to be arriving at the docks, and then moved to their warehouse.”
“They were transporting the drugs inside something else. I was trying to figure out what, but they spotted me. They caught me from behind, hit me on the head.”
“Your head? Are you okay?”
“Not bleeding. Possibly concussed,” Jason reported. “It didn’t knock me out. They injected me with something. They caught me off-guard. How did I not stop them?”
“It’s okay. What happened then?”
“I woke up here. I took off my helmet as soon as I woke up. But it was still dark…”
“Come on, Jay,” Bruce coaxed. “Tell me where you are.”
“Trust me, I can’t think about it and keep breathing,” Jason said with a half-laugh.
“You can. Give me the facts.”
There was an unsteady inhalation. “Okay. Okay. I’m in…a box. Lined with fabric. Or, it was. I tore through it. It’s wood beneath. I can’t punch through. It’s thicker than the last one. Or the drugs are effecting my strength.” There was another pause. “My hands are bloody. I might have broken one of my fingers.”
“Don’t worry about that now,” Bruce said. Bruce glanced across the roof at Damian, who was talking into his comm to Tim and the others. Tim would be scouring the city digitally, and hopefully they had thought to send Stephanie and Cass to the closest cemetery. Bruce wanted to switch lines and take over the search, but Jason’s breathing grew more ragged the longer Bruce hesitated. “I need you to listen. Can you hear anything? Anything at all?”
“No, nothing,” Jason said, too quickly. “There’s nothing.”
“Keep your breathing slow. Take that heartrate down. Breathe with me, Jay.” After a few more moments, the shuffling on the other side of the line slowed. “Okay. Now listen. Gotham is a loud city. You might hear something that can help us find you.”
Bruce stopped talking, letting Jason listen. It was difficult. Bruce had never been burdened with the instinct to fill silences, but tonight their words were the only connection they had. Bruce wanted to be sure that Jason was still there.
Then, suddenly: “The foghorn. The one in the bay.”
“You’re sure?” Bruce asked. His mind was racing. There were no cemeteries near the water, certainly not close enough for Jason to hear the horn through six feet of dirt.
“I’m sure,” Jason said. “I used to live near the bay. That thing used to keep me awake all the time. Of course it would haunt me to my fucking grave.”
“Father,” Damian said, putting a hand on his elbow. “Drake knows where he is.”
They arrived at the warehouse in less than ten minutes. Bruce stayed on the line with Jason while Tim gave Damian directions to relay. The Batmobile skidded over several curbs, and they’d only avoided collision with a bus because of Bruce’s years of training.
“We’re on our way,” Bruce told him.
“I can’t breathe, Bruce,” Jason said.
“It’s in your head. You have enough oxygen,” Bruce told him. “It hasn’t been that long.”
“I can’t…” Jason gasped.
“Close your eyes,” Bruce instructed. “Breathe slowly. We’re almost there.”
The warehouse was one of the many situated by the Gotham docks. Boats dropped off shipments to be stored in the warehouses until trucks could come and take the items. Only one man stood guarding the entrance, and Damian took him out with a swift, silent movement.
Bruce ignored them both, stalking into the warehouse with his cape flapping behind him.
The warehouse, lit only by the moon through the large windows overhead, was filled with coffins. Bruce’s eyes ticked over the room, searching. They were plastic-wrapped and stacked on shelves more than two stories into the air. They were a good cover for the drug smuggling—they were probably each filled with bags of cocaine, and wouldn’t be examined until they were needed.
There was no obvious single coffin set aside. One must have been unwrapped…if Tim was right.
“Jason,” Bruce said quietly, walking through the first row of coffins. “I need you to make some noise. Don’t scream, don’t hurt your hands again. Just kick.”
The muffled thump came through the comms mostly loudly, so Bruce reluctantly turned off his earpiece. He listened to the warehouse. Nothing. It was silent and still. Tim must have been wrong. They must have already taken Jason to bury him somewhere else. They—
Bruce turned down the next aisle, and he heard it. A steady, quiet thump.
The coffin was on the bottom row, tucked in the middle of the aisle. Bruce’s hands didn’t shake as he pulled it from the shelf. They never shook. But his breath was shuddering.
The coffin thunked when it hit the warehouse’s concrete floor. Hopefully the pillow would cushion Jason’s head from the jarring blow, but that wasn’t important. Bruce had to get to him, had to see him. Bruce unlatched the locks and flung open the casket lid.
Jason launched himself at Bruce.
Bruce caught him, and they sunk to the floor together. Jason’s entire form was shaking. The sobs he had suppressed at Bruce’s command were back, and Bruce could feel hot tears against his neck where Jason’s face was pressed into him.
Bruce rubbed Jason’s back and held him close while his other hand carefully checked the back of Jason’s head. As reported, there was a knot where he’d been hit, but the skin hadn’t broken. Once Bruce was sure of the injury site, he was able to avoid it when he laced his fingers into Jason’s hair and pulled him closer.
“You’re okay,” Bruce murmured. “We found you.”
“Bruce,” Jason said, treating the word like a prayer. “I thought I was… I couldn’t. Not again.”
Bruce hushed him. “I’m here, I’m here,” he said, holding him tight. “You’re all right.”
“I didn’t think anyone was coming,” Jason muttered. “At first. I thought I was back…”
“You weren’t. I’m here.”
Jason’s hands knotted in his cape, and then he winced and let go.
Finally, reluctantly, Bruce pulled back and took Jason’s hands in his own. He peeled off Jason’s ripped gloves and examined his bloodied fingers. His knuckles were raw, and his right ring finger was swelling. “We need to treat this,” Bruce said. “And your head. Will you stay at the manor tonight?”
There was an uncomfortable pause during which Bruce thought he’d say no. Jason hadn’t spent the night in the manor since he’d been back, and had avoided any discussion about why. The conversation had devolved into arguments every time.
In the end, though, Jason just nodded. “Yeah.” He leaned forward and rested his forehead against Bruce’s shoulder for a breath, and then straightened again. “Let’s go home.”